News Corp. executives may be in contempt of Parliament. So what?
This post has been corrected. See the note below for details.
LONDON -- Three senior News Corp. executives could be found in contempt of Parliament after British lawmakers accused the trio of lying to them about the phone-hacking scandal.
But embarrassing as that would be, would they actually face any punishment? Prison time in the Tower of London, perhaps, as one British news anchor asked facetiously?
The answer is that no one seems to know, because the last time anybody was found in contempt of the British Parliament -- an ancient offense going back centuries -- was more than 50 years ago.
A damning report released Tuesday by Parliament’s media committee found that Les Hinton, Colin Myler and Tom Crone all deliberately misled lawmakers when, as executives of Rupert Murdoch’s giant News Corp., they appeared before the panel to answer questions on phone hacking at the now-defunct News of the World.
The three men sought to portray the practice as the work of a "rogue reporter," although there was evidence that the tabloid tapped into the cellphones of movie stars, athletes and politicians on an almost industrial scale. Police say there were potentially thousands of victims of illegal phone hacking by the paper.
"It makes no difference -- in terms of misleading this committee -- that evidence was not taken on oath" from Hinton, Myler and Crone, the report said in a stinging rebuke. "Witnesses are required to tell the truth to committees whether on oath or not."
In 1957, a British journalist found in contempt of Parliament was summoned before lawmakers and forced to apologize for an article they felt impugned their honor. So could the House of Commons haul in the three men and make them say sorry?
Not likely. Two of them, Hinton and Myler, live in the U.S. Hinton was Murdoch’s right-hand man before stepping down in the hacking scandal. Myler, formerly editor of the News of the World, is now editor of the New York Daily News.
[For the record, 12:25 p.m. May 1: An earlier version of this post incorrectly described the New York Daily News as a Murdoch publication.]
Both men have issued statements explicitly rejecting the committee’s finding that they lied. Hinton described the report as "unfounded, unfair and erroneous."
What about getting locked up in a dungeon, or its modern equivalent?
That's even more improbable: The last time someone was thrown in jail for contempt of Parliament was during the Victorian era.
Instead, analysts say, the only real penalty of being found in contempt would probably be damage to the men's reputations.
-- Henry Chu
Photo: The British Parliament's media committee is shown Tuesday after releasing a highly critical report on the phone-hacking scandal. Credit: Carl Court / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images