James Murdoch sticks to guns during Parliament appearance
The News Corp. deputy chief operating officer told an at-times hostile Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee that the company was slow to react to growing allegations of phone hacking into the voice-mail accounts of celebrities, members of the British royal family and even crime victims by its now-closed News of the World tabloid.
"Things went wrong at News of the World," Murdoch said. "If I knew then what I knew today ... the company would have acted differently ... to sort this out and put it out."
What Murdoch knew and when he knew it was a focal point of the hearing. He has had oversight over News International, which housed News of the World, since 2007. Although concerns of hacking by the paper predate his arrival, it is his handling of the matter that is under the microscope. Prior to the scandal getting worldwide attention, Murdoch was seen as the likely successor to his father, Rupert Murdoch, at the top of News Corp., a global media conglomerate that owns TV networks, a movie studio and newspapers around the world.
The 38-year-old Murdoch, dressed in a blue suit, white shirt and green tie, seemed cool and calm and at times aloof in his appearance. He, along with pretty much everyone else at the hearing, wore a poppy lapel pin in remembrance of military veterans as Friday is Armistice Day.
No other members of the Murdoch family were at the hearing. Last July, Murdoch appeared before the committee alongside his father, who was attacked by a pie-throwing spectator.
Throughout Thursday's hearing, Murdoch stuck to his guns that his knowledge of the day-to-day operations at News of the World was very limited, even though other executives at the paper have contradicted him.
"I have testified to you consistently about my knowledge of widespread phone hacking," Murdoch told Parliament member Tom Watson, who grilled the executive about his handling of the matter. Watson at one point compared News of the World to the mafia and Murdoch to a mafia boss, which Murdoch said he found "inappropriate" and "offensive."
Much of the questioning of Murdoch was over an email dubbed "For Neville."
The "For Neville" email outlined how widespread the practice of phone hacking was at the paper. Neville Thurlbeck was a reporter at News of the World who was fired in the wake of the ethics scandal.
Murdoch told the committee that it was "not made clear to him" that the complete contents of the "For Neville" email would indicate "wider-spread knowledge" of phone hacking at the company. He claimed that he was only given information to approve an increase in a settlement offer over phone hacking, and that he was not shown an incriminating piece of evidence that has become pivotal to Parliament's investigation.
A major point of contention between Murdoch and committee members was a June 2008 meeting the News Corp. executive had with News of the World officials about the hacking. Murdoch has said the meeting focused primarily on a settlement with Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers Assn., over phone hacking.
However, that appears to contradict others' recollections about the meeting and the level of detail provided to Murdoch about the extent of the hacking. News of the World editor Colin Myler and legal counsel Tom Crone have countered before Parliament that they briefed Murdoch on the extent of the ethics lapse at the paper.
Asked about the difference of opinion, Murdoch told the committee, "what they never did was clearly tell you that they showed me those emails." He called the September committee session during which Myler and Crone appeared "a very confusing and muddled session, to be honest with you."
The News of the World fiasco has given News Corp. a black eye. Not only did it lead the company to close the 168-year-old tabloid, it also had to pull the plug on its $12-billion deal to buy the 60% of British satellite broadcaster BSkyB it didn't already own.
Last month, News Corp. shelled out almost $5 million in a settlement with the family of Milly Dowler, a slain teenage girl whose cellphone was hacked by the tabloid while she was still missing. Last week, the company created a voluntary settlement program for other phone-hacking victims.
Senior News Corp. executives Les Hinton and Rebekah Brooks, both of whom had oversight of the tabloid when hacking was prevalent, also resigned. Brooks was ultimately arrested along with 15 other people in connection with the investigation.
News Corp. is also facing scrutiny in the United States. If its actions at News of the World are found to have violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the company's broadcast licenses could be in jeopardy.
During the hearing, Murdoch was asked about accusations that News of the World had hacked into the voice mails of victims of the 9/11 terrorism attacks in the United States.
He told the committee that he was not aware that any victims of the attacks had their voice mails hacked by operatives for the News of the World.
"A lot of work has been done on that subject; nothing confirms it," Murdoch said, adding he had no knowledge of the "substantiveness or veracity of those accusations."
-- Joe Flint
Photo: James Murdoch at a Parliament appearance on Nov. 10. Credit: Reuters.