Rupert Murdoch, son apologize to lawmakers but deflect phone-hacking blame

Calling it “the most humble day” of his life, Rupert Murdoch and his son James Murdoch confronted angry lawmakers Tuesday, insisting they did not know the scope of phone hacking at their News of the World tabloid and apologizing for being the source of one of the worst crises in the history of British media.

On a day of reckoning for News Corp. in Britain, Rupert Murdoch, a baron of the conservative press whose media empire runs from Fox News to the saucy old tabloids of Fleet Street, put himself forward to face a nation’s fury. Murdoch repeatedly pounded his hand on a table at the select parliamentary committee hearing as he testified but appeared removed from day-to-day details of the scandal and unprepared for the almost forensic lines of questioning.

The drama in the chamber, already at a peak, took a surreal turn when a man yelled “greedy” while tossing a plate of shaving cream at the 80-year-old Murdoch, prompting his wife, Wendi Murdoch, to leap out of her chair and belt the attacker. The melee forced a temporary suspension of a session watched by millions on both sides of the Atlantic.

It was the first time the Australian-born Murdoch has addressed such a forum, and he often turned to his 38-year-old son, who oversees the company’s British operations, to field questions for him. But he was pressed at times to answer himself — occasionally offering the blunt remarks of a hard-boiled newsman.

Murdoch, for instance, vowed not to resign, saying, “I feel that people I trusted . . . let me down . . . and I think that, frankly, I’m the best person to clean this up.”

More than his son James, who often appeared to shield himself behind legalese, the elder Murdoch said major mistakes had been made by News Corp. in the handling of the scandal — in which the News of the World hacked the phones of thousands of British citizens, including members of the royal family, over the past decade.

“There were people in the company which were apparently guilty, and we have to find them and we have to deal with them,” Murdoch said at one point.

“I didn’t know, I’m sorry. . . . News of the World was 1 percent of our company.”

Throughout the proceedings, Murdoch insisted that he was not informed about key developments in the scandal. He said, for example, that he did not know about legal settlements with phone-hacking victims in excess of $1 million and dating to 2008 — settlements that British lawmakers suggested were made to keep a lid on the scandal.

He also said he was unaware that in 2009, the same select committee he was appearing before had accused British executives at News Corp. of having “collective amnesia” about alleged widespread use of phone hacking at the tabloid.

“I don’t know who made that particular charge. I haven’t heard that,” he said. “You’re really not saying amnesia. You’re really saying lying.”

Others testify at hearing

Nevertheless, father and son mounted a rigorous defense of the company’s response to wrongdoing and mismanagement at News International, News Corp.’s British division, saying the company moved as fast as it could as details came to light. Murdoch said, for example, that he decided to close the 168-year-old News of the World after revelations that the tabloid had interfered in the investigation of Milly Dowler, a schoolgirl abducted and killed in 2002, by hacking into her phone. That hacking case, reported in the Guardian two weeks ago, exploded the long-festering scandal.

In particular, Murdoch backed two longtime top News Corp. executives who have resigned in light of the scandal, Les Hinton and Rebekah Brooks. Brooks — former editor of News of the World and chief executive of News International until Friday — also testified Tuesday, repeating her position that she was unaware of illicit newsgathering at the organization.

The almost-scientific questions pelting the Murdochs displayed a far different tone from those of the politically charged hearings of Capitol Hill and were tinged with a dispassionate, British air.

News Corp. stock rebounded Tuesday, closing at $15.79 — an increase of 5.5 percent — after sliding more than 10 percent in recent weeks as the scandal heated up.

During an extraordinary day of testimony — which also included an appearance by Sir Paul Stephenson, who resigned Sunday as head of the Metropolitan Police — one person absent from Parliament was a constant focus of attention: Prime Minister David Cameron.

Cameron returned to London on Tuesday, after an official visit to Nigeria, to address Parliament on Wednesday. He has faced swirling questions about his links to News Corp. figures arrested in the scandal. Murdoch outlined the nature of his relationship with the prime minister, saying Tuesday that a few days after Cameron won back No. 10 Downing Street for the Conservatives last spring he was invited for tea in gratitude for his support. He was asked, however, to enter through the back door.

“To avoid the photographers,” Murdoch said.

Clouds of suspicion

Brooks was also grilled about her ties to Cameron. Looking weary, she said the news media had inflated details of their professional relationship. “He is a neighbor and a friend, but I deem the relationship to be wholly appropriate, and at no time have I had a conversation with the prime minister that you in this room would disapprove of.”

Appearing before the Home Affairs Committee, Stephenson sought to dispel widespread impressions that he had impugned the prime minister in his resignation speech Sunday. Stephenson resigned after revelations that the Metropolitan Police had hired a former News of the World editor, Neil Wallis, as a media consultant despite allegations of illicit newsgathering at the tabloid while he worked there.

In his resignation, Stephenson suggested that Wallis had been under less of a cloud of suspicion than Andy Coulson, a former News of the World editor hired by Cameron as his communications director. Wallis and Coulson have been arrested in recent days.

On Tuesday, Stephenson said, “I made no personal attack on the prime minister.” But he again maintained that he had not earlier disclosed to No. 10 Downing Street that Wallis was a suspect and had been on the force’s payroll to shield the prime minister, given his close relationship with Coulson.

Stephenson also said he previously had no reason to question Wallis’s integrity because his staff had assured him that phone hacking at the News of the World had been limited to an isolated case in 2005. Committee Chairman Keith Vaz, however, suggested that as a police officer, Stephenson should have questioned the propriety of having Wallis at Scotland Yard and Coulson at Downing Street.

“It’s almost like a fashion accessory, that editors from News of the World go and work for the police or politicians,” Vaz said.