Murdochs Face U.K. Grilling Over Tabloid Scandal
Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 11:38 am
Rupert Murdoch, whose media empire is the subject of a corruption and phone-hacking investigation, was briefly accosted Tuesday by a protester at a British parliamentary inquiry as he answered questions about his role in the scandal.
The man ran toward Murdoch and tried to attack him with what appeared to be white foam in a foil pie dish. Murdoch's wife, Wendi Deng, rose from her seat and slapped the protester, who was handcuffed by police and removed from the room. Murdoch was apparently unharmed, and the hearing resumed after a brief recess.
The attack was a shocking interruption of one of several hearings on the phone-hacking scandal that has rocked the media baron's global empire.
Murdoch, his son James — News Corp.'s heir apparent — and former U.K. newspaper chief Rebekah Brooks all faced parliamentary grilling over allegations that reporters at the now-defunct News of the World tabloid hacked into the phones of celebrities and crime victims while looking for scoops.
Murdoch banged his hands on the table as he told a special session of the Culture, Media and Sports Committee that his appearance in London was "the most humble day of my life."
But in a tense question-and-answer session lasting 2 1/2 hours, he said he was not responsible for "this fiasco" and that his company was not guilty of willful blindness. Murdoch said he clearly had been misled about the phone hacking at the News of the World tabloid, which he shut down last week as the scandal widened.
Asked if he had ever considered resigning over the debacle, Murdoch said he had not. Asked why not, he replied: "Because I think people I trusted — I am not saying who — let me down.
"Frankly, I'm the best person to clean this mess up," he added.
Murdoch said he was "shocked, appalled and ashamed" at the hacking of a murdered schoolgirl's phone by News of the World. He also said he has seen no evidence that victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and their relatives were targeted by any of his papers.
The 80-year-old executive told the committee that he was not informed that his company had paid out large sums — in one case $1.1 million — in June 2008 to settle lawsuits by phone-hacking victims. James Murdoch said his father became aware of the settlement "in 2009 after a newspaper report. It was a confidential settlement."
In his opening remarks, the chairman of the Culture, Media and Sports Committee, John Whittingdale, said the revelations of abuses at the News of the World had "shocked and angered the country" and that Parliament had been misled in earlier investigations.
Asked why there was no investigation into former News editor Brooks' 2003 admission that the paper had paid off U.K. police for inside information, Murdoch said, "I didn't know of it," adding that the tabloid "is less than 1 percent" of his News Corp., which employs 53,000 people.
Rupert Murdoch said he shut down the newspaper because "we felt ashamed. ... We had broken trust with our readers."
James Murdoch told the committee he had "no knowledge and there is no evidence that I am aware that Ms. Brooks" or other officials at the paper were aware of the phone hacking.
Brooks, who resigned days ago, faced a parliamentary grilling of her own over the allegations that reporters tapped into the phone voice mail of celebrities and crime victims looking for scoops during her tenure at News of the World.
On Tuesday, she maintained no prior knowledge of the phone hacking, saying reporters at News of the World "consistently denied these allegations in various internal investigations."
Regarding allegations that the News paid police for juicy scoops, Brooks testified that in her experience with the police, "the information comes free of charge."
"I have never paid a police officer myself," Brooks said, adding that she was aware that it had been done "in the past."
Brooks' lawyer has said she has committed no crime.
As politicians pushed for more details about the scale of criminality at News of the World, lawmakers held a separate hearing to question London police about reports that officers took bribes from journalists to provide inside information for tabloid scoops and ask why the force decided to shut down an earlier phone-hacking probe after charging only two people.
At the hearing, Britain's most senior police officer revealed that 10 of the 45 press officers in his department used to work for News International, News Corp.'s British arm, but he denied there are any improper links between the force and Rupert Murdoch's media empire.
"I understand that there are 10 members of the [Department of Public Affairs] staff who have worked in News International in the past, in some cases journalists, in some cases undertaking work experience with the organization," said Paul Stephenson, the head of Scotland Yard.
Stephenson denied wrongdoing or knowing the newspaper was engaged in phone hacking — but acknowledged that in retrospect he was embarrassed the force had hired a former News editor as a PR consultant.
After being asked about his relationship with Neil Wallis, a former executive editor who was arrested last week, Stephenson said he had "no reason to connect Wallis with phone hacking" when he was hired for the part-time job in 2009.
Stephenson announced his resignation on Sunday but has yet to leave the post. His deputy, John Yates, said Monday that he would step down.
Yates, who testified separately from Stephenson, said: "I very confidently predict, a very small number of police officers will go to prison for corruption," but added that should not "taint" the whole department.
Yates also maintained that he personally had done nothing wrong and said that with the benefit of hindsight he would have reopened the inquiry into electronic eavesdropping of voice mail messages.
The ever-widening scandal has engulfed Murdoch's News Corp., which spans multiple continents and controls such media powerhouses as U.S.-based Fox TV network, 20th Century Fox film studio and The Wall Street Journal as well as The Times of London, The Australian and British Sky Broadcasting. It has also tainted London's prestigious Scotland Yard and British Prime Minister David Cameron, who cut short a visit to Africa and was expected to return to Britain for an emergency session of Parliament on the scandal Wednesday.
Murdoch shut down the lucrative News of the World last week after 169 years in print in an apparent attempt at damage control.
In a further twist, former News reporter Sean Hoare, who helped blow the whistle on the hacking scandal, was found dead Monday in his home. After an autopsy, police on Tuesday said there was "no evidence of third party involvement and the death is non-suspicious."
So far, the scandal has claimed numerous scalps. In addition to Brooks and London's top two police officials, Wall Street Journal publisher Les Hinton, who was head of News International at the time of the hacking scandal, also quit.
In New York, News Corp. appointed commercial lawyer Anthony Grabiner to run its Management and Standards Committee, which will deal with the scandal. But News Corp. board member Thomas Perkins told The Associated Press that Murdoch has the full support of the company's board of directors, and it was not considering elevating Chief Operating Officer Chase Carey to replace Murdoch as CEO.
Meanwhile, Internet hackers took aim at Murdoch late Monday, defacing the sites of his other U.K. tabloid, The Sun, and shutting down the website of The Times of London. Visitors to The Sun website were redirected to a page featuring a story saying Murdoch's dead body had been found in his garden.
With reporting from NPR's Philip Reeves and Larry Miller in London. Material from The Associated Press was used in this story.