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James Murdoch insists he was kept in dark about phone hacking

Grilled by Parliament members, Murdoch refuses to waiver from statements he made in July that he was unaware until late last year of the extent of the illegal activities at one of News Corp.'s British newspapers.

November 10, 2011|By Janet Stobart, Meg James and Joe Flint, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from London and Los Angeles — Assured, aloof and at times combative, News Corp. scion James Murdoch insisted to Parliament members that he had been kept in the dark as evidence mounted that corruption was widespread at one of his company's British newspapers.

The 38-year-old News Corp. deputy chief operating officer was grilled for 21/2 hours Thursday by a committee of British lawmakers investigating a phone-hacking scandal and attempted coverup at the now-defunct News of the World tabloid.

Across the road from the Parliament building and its iconic Big Ben clock tower, Murdoch repeatedly refused to waiver from statements he made in July that he was unaware until late last year of the extent of the illegal activities.

PHOTOS: British phone-hacking scandal

The scandal has led to more than 16 arrests and jeopardized the young executive's hopes of succeeding his father, News Corp. Chief Executive Rupert Murdoch, at the helm of the global media empire.

Dressed in a dark blue suit and green tie, and like lawmakers wearing a red poppy on his lapel in honor of the nation's war dead, Murdoch withstood a barrage of questions and assertions that at times bordered on hostile.

One member of the investigating committee compared him to an organized crime leader. Tom Watson quizzed Murdoch on his knowledge of such terms as omerta, a policy of keeping silent about crimes and refusing to cooperate with police.

"I am not an aficionado," Murdoch said. He scoffed at Watson's comparison of News International, the British newspaper division of News Corp., to a criminal organization. Murdoch called the insinuation "offensive" and "not true."

"You must be the first Mafia boss in history who didn't know he was running a criminal enterprise," Watson cracked.

At issue is when Murdoch learned that unethical conduct at the News of the World was widespread and whether he authorized unusually large settlements to phone-hacking victims to keep them quiet.

Staff members of News International are accused of bribing police officers for information and eavesdropping on voicemail messages on the cellphones of celebrities, royal family members, sports figures, crime victims and fallen soldiers — as many as 5,800 victims, according to Scotland Yard.

In July, when Rupert and James Murdoch first appeared before Parliament's Culture, Media and Sport Committee, the 80-year-old CEO interrupted the proceedings to say the situation and their appearance marked "the most humble day of my life."

But the younger Murdoch showed little remorse, saying that he was sorry for the company's behavior but that he should not be held personally accountable.

"He's someone who finds [it] almost impossible to say he was wrong — an interesting contrast with his father," said Claire Enders, a media analyst with Enders Analysis research group in London.

Instead, he blamed his underlings. Murdoch said they did not disclose vital information or show him an email unearthed in 2008 that showed several people at News of the World were involved in the hacking. The email undermined News Corp.'s position that the wrongdoing was limited to a private investigator and one "rogue reporter." Murdoch said he was never shown the email.

Hours after the hearing, Tom Crone, former legal advisor to the tabloid, released a statement disputing Murdoch's version of events.

"The simple truth is that he was told by us in 2008 about the damning email and what it meant in terms of wider News of the World involvement," Crone said. "At best, his evidence on this matter was disingenuous."

Damian Tambini, media policy project director at the London School of Economics, said James Murdoch was "in an impossible situation."

"To Parliament he basically has to say he knew very little of the industrial-scale illegal intrusions on privacy that we now know were going on," Tambini said. "To his shareholders, however, he has to maintain that he and his executives were in control of the company."

Aeron Davis, a communications professor at Goldsmiths College at London University, said Murdoch's statements to the committee highlighted the glaring conflict.

"Either he is incompetent — why didn't he know all of this — or it is a clear coverup," Davis said. "I think logic leads us to believe it was a coverup, which has started to unravel."

Committee members may have come to the same conclusion. Murdoch presented himself as a studious, razor-sharp executive, firmly in control — but said he did not bother to ask why the company would pay more than $1 million to settle a privacy invasion lawsuit that normally would have resolved for less than $100,000.

"Do you think this whole saga and your evident lack of curiosity in asking questions that were screaming to be asked shows you to be competent or incompetent?" asked Paul Farrelly, a member of the committee.

He suggested that Murdoch seemed to be the "only person in London" who believed that the scandal was perpetrated by a couple of bad apples.

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