Man Attacks Murdoch During Parliament Hearing

Published July 19, 2011

| Reuters

Rupert Murdoch, unperturbed by a foam pie attack in Britain's parliament, apologized on Tuesday for the phone hacking scandal that has engulfed his empire but said he would not resign as he had himself been let down by others.

Murdoch, at times appearing all of his 80 years as he took lengthy pauses before answering questions alongside his 38-year-old son, said he had been ashamed by the allegations and won some sympathy for his apparent remorse.

In a hotly anticipated hearing, the most dramatic moment came after two and half hours when a man appeared to rise from the public area of the committee room and tried to hit the elder Murdoch with a dish of white foam.

As James rose and police moved in, watched live by millions on television, Rupert Murdoch's 42-year-old wife Wendi Deng, who had been sitting right behind her husband, leapt forward to slap the man. He was hauled away and the session suspended.

Ten minutes later, the session resumed with an apology from the chairman and a jacket-less Rupert Murdoch who continued to answer questions calmly.

At the start of proceedings, the elder Murdoch had rejected personal responsibility for the phone-hacking and corruption scandal but, with his son, said the company was deeply sorry and intended to resolve the issue as quickly as possible.

Sitting next to James, who opened the proceedings in a packed committee room at Westminster by apologizing to victims of voicemail hacking, the Australian-born chief executive of News Corp interjected:

"I would just like to say one sentence," he said. "This is the most humble day of my life."

He later said he was "shocked, appalled and ashamed" when he read two weeks ago of the case that has transformed the smoldering scandal into a "firestorm", in the words of Prime Minister David Cameron. It has shaken Britons' trust in the press, police and politicians, including Cameron himself.

Murdoch has shut down his top-selling Sunday newspaper, the 168-year-old tabloid News of the World, and dropped a strategically important buyout bid for broadcaster BSkyB.

But asked flat out if he considered himself personally responsible "for this fiasco", Murdoch replied simply: "No."

Asked who was, he said: "The people that I trusted to run it, and then maybe the people they trusted." His son said they did not believe the two most senior executives to have resigned, Rebekah Brooks and Les Hinton, knew of wrongdoing.

Several people were ejected from the packed public area of the room as proceedings were beginning after holding up posters reading "Murdoch wanted for news crimes". Outside, demonstrators also kept vigil throughout the hearing.

During questioning, Murdoch insisted that he had been misled when previously denying that phone hacking at the News of the World went beyond the case of a reporter who was jailed for the offence in 2007. Occasionally slapping the table in apparent frustration, he said the paper was only a small part of his business, suggesting he could not supervise it personally.

Asked about one of 10 journalists arrested this year by police probing hacking, he said gruffly: "Never heard of him."

He added: "This is not an excuse. Maybe it's an explanation of my laxity. The News of the World is less than 1 percent of our company. I employ 53,000 people around the world."

APOLOGY

As the session before the lower house media committee got under way, the chairman rejected a request by James Murdoch, the heir apparent and chairman of British newspaper unit News International, to make an opening statement.

However, after a first question, the younger Murdoch began by offering an apology: "I would just like to say how sorry I am and how sorry we are to particularly the victims of the illegal voicemail interceptions and to their families.

"It is a matter of great regret, of mine, of my father's, and everyone at News Corporation. These actions do not live up to the standards that our company aspires to everywhere around the world and it is our determination to put things right, to make sure these things do not happen again and to be the company that I know we have always aspired to be."

The elder Murdoch said he had seen no evidence to support a suggestion his journalists might have tried to spy on the families of victims of the 9/11 attacks in the United States. The FBI is looking into that allegation.

The two Murdochs sat side by side at a table facing the horseshoe of lawmakers asking their questions. Occasionally, the younger Murdoch attempted to break in to answer questions posed to his father.

POLICE UNDER FIRE

Rebekah Brooks, the former News of the World editor at the time some of the alleged hacking occurred, and a Rupert Murdoch confidante, later told the same hearing that she wanted to apologize for the scandal and denied knowing the private investigators at the heart of the allegations.

Appearing polite and thoughtful, Brooks also dismissed suggestions she had ever made or sanctioned payments to the police. She resigned on Friday over the scandal and was arrested by police on Sunday.

The scandal has embarrassed not only Murdoch's empire but also the police and Cameron.

With a second British police chief quitting on Monday over the scandal, Cameron cut short a trade trip to Africa and was due to return in time for an emergency debate on Wednesday in parliament, which is delaying its summer recess.

Speaking in Lagos, Nigeria, before flying home as the committee hearing began, Cameron said he was committed, through new investigations, to addressing three key problems: "The wrongdoing in parts of the media and the potential that there is corruption in the police and ... the third ... which is the relationship between politicians and the media."

But he also signaled a desire to push the agenda away from a scandal that has dominated every debate for two full weeks:

"The British public want something else too," Cameron said.

"They don't want us to lose our focus on an economy that provides good jobs, on an immigration system that works for Britain, a welfare system that is fair for our people."

The Murdochs' appearance before parliament's media committee was expected to attract a television audience of millions, not only in Britain, but also notably in the United States, where Murdoch controls Fox television and the Wall Street Journal among other businesses.

"I want to feel the atmosphere in the room and actually witness history unfold," said Max Beckham, 21, from London as he lined up for one of the few public seats on offer. "This hearing could signal the end of Rupert Murdoch's reign."

Another eager witness in the public gallery, Canadian tourist Andy Thomson, 40, called it "the best show in town".

DEFENSE CRUMBLED

Murdoch's British arm, News International, had long maintained that the practice of intercepting mobile phone voicemails to get stories was the work of a sole reporter on the News of the World who, along with a private investigator, were jailed for several months in 2007.

That "rogue reporter" defense crumbled under a steady drip-feed of claims by celebrities that they were targeted.

The younger Murdoch, whose future as heir-apparent to the company is under threat as shareholders question his ability, said he was aware, before News International agreed to cooperate with police on a new inquiry this year, of payments made after 2007 to some public figures who had complained of phone-hacking.

He also said the company had paid legal fees for the convicted investigator Glenn Mulcaire, though said he had been shocked to discover it. As lawmakers questioned whether that might indicate News Corp was buying Mulcaire's silence, both Murdochs said they would try to end payments if that was possible under the terms of any contract with Mulcaire.

The floodgates opened two weeks ago when a lawyer for the family of a murdered teenage schoolgirl said the paper had hacked her phone when she was missing, deleting messages and raising false hopes she could be still alive.

The ensuing outrage prompted News Corp to close the News of the World and drop a $12 billion plan to take full control of pay TV operator BSkyB, and saw the arrest Brooks, a Murdoch protégée who once edited the newspaper.

Cameron has faced questions over his judgment in appointing former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his communications chief, while London police chief Paul Stephenson and anti-terrorism head John Yates stepped down over links to Coulson's former deputy, appointed as an adviser to the police.

A News Corp board member told Reuters the group's independent directors were fully behind Rupert Murdoch. There has been talk in recent days that Chase Carey would be elevated from chief operating officer to take over from Murdoch, as CEO, with the latter staying as chairman.

Corporate governance watchdog PIRC, which advises many institutional investors said the younger Murdoch should step down as chairman of BSkyB: "Other investors share our opinion," it said in a statement. "The risk of contagion is great ... How, in reality, can someone facing challenges on all sides expect to devote sufficient attention to chairing a FTSE 100?"

On Monday, Standard & Poor's said it may cut News Corp's credit rating from the current BBB+, given the risks associated with widening legal probes in Britain and pressure for an FBI investigation in the United States.

News Corp. is the parent company of the FOX Business Network.

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