Murdoch: I wasn't responsible

Rupert Murdoch and son James appear before a British parliamentary panel. The elder Murdoch called it the "most humble day of my life." Both denied knowledge of rampant phone hacking.
Rupert Murdoch and son James appear before a British parliamentary panel. The elder Murdoch called it the "most humble day of my life." Both denied knowledge of rampant phone hacking. (Associated Press)
Posted: July 20, 2011

LONDON - The question was pointed, the answer even more so.

Was he not ultimately responsible, as chairman of News Corp., for the phone-hacking scandal that has shaken his global media empire to the core?

"Nope," answered Rupert Murdoch, sounding almost surprised anyone would think so.

The Australia-born media mogul described it as the "most humble day of my life." But his conclusions during an afternoon of grilling by British lawmakers Tuesday were anything but.

Summoned to give evidence before Parliament, Murdoch tried to undo some of the damage caused by a newspaper debacle that has spread to politicians and the police, mushrooming into a national crisis.

At times vague and frail-looking, at others pugnacious and curt, Murdoch denied any knowledge of rampant cellphone hacking by the News of the World. His son James, called to appear with him, did the same in a sometimes-stumbling performance. And even as questioners tried to get him to accept some responsibility for what happened, the 80-year-old billionaire declared that he was "the best person" to clean up the mess.

After three hours of sparring, neither side of the table seemed to land a knockout punch. The person who came closest was Murdoch's wife, Wendi Deng, who sprang from her chair in back of her husband to smack an activist who had hurled shaving cream at her husband.

"Mr. Murdoch, your wife has a very good left hook," Labor Party lawmaker Tom Watson said in a rare moment of levity (though she had swung with her right arm).

The packed session had been hotly anticipated since Murdoch and his son were summoned Thursday to give evidence before Parliament.

People lined up early for tickets to see a man who trafficked in sensational headlines, then became one himself. A group of protesters, some wearing Rupert Murdoch masks, thronged outside the building. Some waved placards that said: "Smash Murdoch's evil empire!"

No longer in thrall

For the Murdochs, it was a chance to atone publicly for allegations that the News of the World illegally gained access to the private voice mails of potentially thousands of people - not just celebrities and political bigwigs, but also murder victims and fallen soldiers. In response to a public outcry, Murdoch shut down the News of the World a week and a half ago.

For members of Parliament, the committee hearing was their moment to demonstrate that they no longer stood in thrall to a man who has intimidated plenty of politicians through the power of his newspaper holdings, though he is not a British citizen.

In a prepared statement, the elder Murdoch apologized to phone-hacking victims.

"I want them to know the depth of my regret for the horrible invasions into their lives," he said. "I fully understand their ire. And I intend to work tirelessly to merit their forgiveness."

But he had to endure sharp questions from lawmakers, particularly Watson, who were intent on uncovering whether Murdoch fostered a culture of criminal recklessness at News International, the British subsidiary of News Corp., which also owns the Times and the Sun.

Murdoch said he had zero tolerance for lawbreaking but acknowledged that he might have taken his eye off the tabloid.

"The News of the World is less than 1 percent of the company," Murdoch said. "I employ 53,000 people around the world . . . and I'm spread watching and appointing people whom I trust to run those divisions."

He dismissed suggestions that he and his top executives had been "willfully blind" to what went on.

But he and his son both strongly backed two senior News Corp. executives who have stepped down as a result of the scandal: Les Hinton, the chief executive of Dow Jones & Co., which publishes the Wall Street Journal, and Rebekah Brooks. Brooks was the head of News International and the editor of the News of the World when the tabloid is suspected of having intercepted and tampered with voice mails left on the phone of a kidnapped 13-year-old schoolgirl who was later found killed.

Hinton and Brooks deny knowledge of the hacking at the News of the World. Brooks, who was arrested in connection with the phone hacking and released on bail Sunday, gave evidence to the committee after the Murdochs.

In one surprising disclosure, it emerged that News International paid the legal fees of private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, who was convicted of hacking into the cellphones of aides to the royal family. Mulcaire is also suspected of intercepting and deleting messages on the phone of the slain teenager in 2002.

It was unclear whether News International was continuing to pay Mulcaire's legal fees in civil suits, but Murdoch said he would try to end the arrangement.

Mulcaire and the News of the World reporter who covered the royal family, Clive Goodman, were jailed in 2007. Until several months ago, News International maintained that phone hacking was confined to a "rogue reporter," despite thousands of pages of documents seized from Mulcaire suggesting that the practice was widespread.

'This hysteria'

Scotland Yard, which has been criticized for a lackadaisical first investigation, is now conducting a new probe.

The media tycoon insisted that his newspapers had made a great contribution to British life and that his rivals were bent on using the scandal to thwart his ambitions, especially News Corp.'s now-aborted bid to take over BSkyB, Britain's biggest satellite broadcaster.

"A lot of people had agendas, I think, in trying to build this hysteria," Murdoch said. "They caught us with dirty hands, and they put hysteria around."

Murdoch, a naturalized U.S. citizen, 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.

Although only one publication in Britain has made the uncorroborated allegation, 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," Murdoch said. "I cannot believe it happened."

The younger Murdoch, 38, was quizzed extensively about a payment of more than $1 million to former soccer player Gordon Taylor in 2008 to settle a dispute over phone hacking. Murdoch denied it was hush money, despite the confidentiality clause attached to the settlement.

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