Rupert Murdoch testifies in phone hacking, is attacked
Calling it the “most humble day of my life,” media baron Rupert Murdoch appeared before British lawmakers Tuesday to answer questions about a phone-hacking scandal that has badly tarnished his and his company’s reputation.
The session was interrupted after 2 1/2 hours when a man ran up to Murdoch and apparently tried to fling something onto him, possibly shaving cream, causing Murdoch’s wife, Wendi, to jump up to defend her husband while one of the lawmakers rose in alarm.
The young man was quickly arrested, handcuffed and bundled out of the committee room, with a white substance on his face and shirt. Murdoch, who also had some white substance on the right shoulder of his jacket, seemed to be unharmed.
Earlier, looking somber and sitting alongside his son James, who was also called to give evidence, Murdoch apologized for wrongdoing at the now-defunct News of the World tabloid and said: “We had broken our trust with our readers.”
The 80-year-old billionaire described himself as “absolutely shocked, appalled and ashamed” when he first heard allegations two weeks ago that the tabloid had ordered the hacking of a cellphone belonging to a 13-year-old British schoolgirl who was kidnapped and later found slain in 2002.
But he refrained from describing such illegal tactics as “endemic” at News International, the British subsidiary of his media giant News Corp., and when asked if he bore ultimate responsibility, as News Corp.'s chairman, for what happened at the News of the World, he replied succinctly: “Nope.”
Those responsible, he added, were “the people that I trusted to run it and then maybe people they trusted.” He described himself as the best person to lead his company through the crisis.
In a packed parliamentary committee room, Murdoch also dismissed accusations that the News of the World might have tried to obtain the phone records of victims of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. So far only one publication in Britain, the Daily Mirror tabloid, has made the allegation; it has not been corroborated by any other source. But the FBI has opened a probe into the possibility.
“We have seen no evidence of that at all, and as far as we know the FBI haven’t either. If they do, we would treat it exactly the same way as we treat it here,” Murdoch said. “I cannot believe it happened.”
The hearing, before the British Parliament’s committee on culture, media and sport, had been hotly anticipated for days as the phone-hacking scandal gathered momentum.
Before the hearing began, analysts said the Murdochs would need to strike a delicate balance between demonstrating their willingness to cooperate and answering sensitive questions without incriminating or raising more doubts about News International.
Under questioning, the senior Murdoch at times looked uncertain and confused, often pausing for some time before answering. At times his 38-year-old son tried to interject and answer on his father’s behalf, but lawmakers rebuffed those efforts more than once.
The scandal has triggered a wave of national revulsion among Britons, who were relatively indifferent when the list of hacking victims seemed confined to movie stars and politicians but became outraged over revelations that the cellphone of teenager Milly Dowler was allegedly broken into and tampered with after she was kidnapped.
A private investigator employed by the News of the World is suspected of illegally accessing Milly’s voicemail messages, then deleting some of them to make space for more, which may have hampered the police investigation into her disappearance and which gave her family false hope that she was still alive.
Murdoch has met with the family and apologized. At the hearing Tuesday he said that the decision to shut down the News of the World was not the result of commercial considerations but rather out of shame.
“Yes, we felt ashamed of what had happened and thought we would bring it to a close,” he said.
Murdoch denied shuttering the News of the World as a way of protecting Rebekah Brooks, the former head of News International and one of his most trusted lieutenants. Brooks resigned last Friday and was arrested and released on bail Sunday. Murdoch said he accepted Brooks’ resignation with great reluctance, and only then because she was “in extreme anguish.”
His son James was extensively quizzed by lawmakers on a payment by News International to former soccer player Gordon Taylor of more than $1 million in 2008 to settle a dispute over alleged phone hacking. the younger Murdoch denied that the large amount marked the payment as hush money, despite the confidentiality clause attached to the settlement.
An almost daily cascade of disclosures of alleged hacking has resulted in the arrest of former high-ranking editors at the tabloid and the resignation of the head of Scotland Yard and the police force’s counterterrorism chief. The latter had called the original investigation into the hacking allegations sufficient and refused to renew it, despite evidence that there were thousands of potential victims.
In a separate hearing before Parliament’s home affairs committee, Paul Stephenson, who stepped down Sunday as the head of Scotland Yard, said it was “embarrassing” that the force had hired a former News of the World deputy editor as a part-time public-relations consultant even as the police were being urged to reopen their investigation into the tabloid.
Stephenson insisted he had no reason to suspect that the consultant, Neil Wallis, was implicated in the hacking scandal, even though Wallis’ boss at the paper, Andy Coulson, was forced to resign in 2007 over the conviction of a News of the World reporter on hacking charges.
Both Coulson and Wallis were arrested last week in connection with hacking allegations and released on bail.
In another indication of the strong links between the police and Murdoch’s empire, Stephenson disclosed that 10 of 45 public-relations officers at Scotland Yard once worked for News International. He acknowledged that changes were advisable in the relationship between the press and the police. “We need to handle the media differently in the future — much more transparently,” he said.