News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch, left, and his son James at the Cheltenham… (Adrian Dennis / AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from London — After initially saying no, media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his son James agreed Thursday to appear before lawmakers next week to answer questions about the hacking scandal that has engulfed their company's newspapers in Britain.
The about-face came after top political leaders piled pressure on father and son to give evidence before a parliamentary committee, with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg urging the two men to "do the decent thing; you can't hide away from this level of public anguish and anger."
The Murdochs' capitulation was another demonstration of how they and their giant News Corp. have struggled to get on the right side of public opinion amid the escalating phone-hacking scandal here. Already, News Corp. has retracted its controversial bid to take over Britain's biggest satellite broadcaster and has shut down the News of the World tabloid in an effort to mollify national anger over allegations that reporters tapped into the cellphones of ordinary people.
The Murdochs are scheduled to appear before lawmakers Tuesday in a session that promises to be a piece of high political drama. Rebekah Brooks, head of News International, the British subsidiary of News Corp., is to attend as well.
Also Thursday, police announced their ninth arrest in connection with the phone-hacking allegations. Neil Wallis, a former executive editor at the News of the World, was released on bail after several hours of questioning.
In another twist in a scandal that has shined a harsh light on the uncomfortably close ties here between the press, politicians and police, Scotland Yard confirmed that it had employed Wallis' public relations firm for a year, starting in October 2009.
Scotland Yard said Wallis' firm provided "strategic communication advice and support" while one of the regular police spokesmen was on sick leave. The arrangement ended by "mutual consent" in September 2010, preceding the revival this year of the investigation into alleged phone hacking by the News of the World.
But Keith Vaz, a lawmaker with the opposition Labor Party, said he was "gobsmacked" by the disclosure, which would only increase public incredulity over the cozy relationship between the media and the police.
"Politicians are not normally speechless," he told the BBC. "I couldn't quite believe, even in the 'Alice in Wonderland' world that we're now in, that this could be the case."
Most of the attention Thursday, however, was focused on the Murdochs and the question of whether they would appear before Parliament's committee on culture, media and sport.
The invitation to give evidence was issued Wednesday. On Thursday morning, the Murdochs said they would not appear. James Murdoch offered to come before the committee next month, and his father said he would testify instead before an official inquiry on the hacking scandal that Prime Minister David Cameron announced this week.
But lawmakers reacted indignantly to the refusal and prepared to issue hand-delivered summonses to the Murdochs that carried greater force, although it remained unclear whether they could compel the two men, who are not British citizens, to attend. Brooks, who is British, acquiesced to the request from the beginning.
Hours later, the Murdochs changed their minds, without publicly explaining why. Analysts said the men probably decided that it was better to heed the public sentiment that they ought to answer lawmakers' questions.
It was further proof of the shift in the balance of power between the Murdoch empire and Parliament, whose members had been derided for being too obsequious to the media baron before last week's wave of public anger over the hacking allegations swept through the country.
John Whittingdale, the Conservative lawmaker who heads the committee that will hold next week's hearing, welcomed the Murdochs' change of heart.
"This is not about a lynch mob or an opportunity to throw abuse," Whittingdale said. "This is about hearing from them exactly what has been happening."