JEFFREY BROWN: The firestorm over phone-hacking in Britain put media magnate Rupert Murdoch on the hot seat today before a committee of Parliament. Along with his son and a former top executive, Murdoch faced close questioning and a closer encounter with a pie plate.
Outside, the sidewalks were crowded with protesters against the Murdochs and their newspapers and British Prime Minister David Cameron. Inside, Rupert Murdoch was confronted by British lawmakers over allegations that his tabloids hacked the phones of celebrities, royals, slain soldiers and murder victims.
At the outset, he and son James, the current CEO of News Corporation, set a tone of contrition.
JAMES MURDOCH, News Corporation Europe and Asia: These are standards — these — these actions don’t live up to the standards that our company aspires to everywhere around the world. And it is our determination to both put things right, make sure these things don’t happen again, and to be the company that I know we have always aspired to be.
As for my comments, Mr. Chairman, and my statement, which I believe was around the closure of the News of the World newspaper…
RUPERT MURDOCH, News Corporation: Before you get to that, I would just like to say one sentence: This is the most humble day of my life.
JEFFREY BROWN: The long-simmering scandal at Murdoch’s News of the World exploded two weeks ago with revelations that the voice mails of Milly Dowler, a teenage murder victim, had been illegally intercepted by reporters.
RUPERT MURDOCH: I was absolutely shocked, appalled and ashamed when I heard about the Milly Dowler case only two weeks ago, eight days before I saw the — was graciously received by the Dowlers.
JEFFREY BROWN: Murdoch apologized to the Dowler family in person last Friday. But when asked to accept direct blame today, he demurred.
MAN: Mr. Murdoch, do you accept that ultimately you are responsible for this whole fiasco?
RUPERT MURDOCH: No.
MAN: You are not responsible? Who is responsible?
RUPERT MURDOCH: The people that I trusted to run it, and then maybe the people they trusted.
JEFFREY BROWN: Murdoch suggested he paid little attention to the News of the World because it amounted to less than one percent of his holdings, which include, in the U.S., FOX Broadcasting, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Post.
James Murdoch also said repeatedly that he knew nothing about key aspects of the scandal, such as how informants were paid.
JAMES MURDOCH: I don’t have direct knowledge of all of those arrangements.
THERESE COFFEY, British parliamentarian: Is it possible other forms of remuneration can be used in your company, apart from cash and bank transfers, talking things like traveler’s checks, vouchers, things that can be redeemed for cash?
JAMES MURDOCH: I don’t have knowledge of that.
JEFFREY BROWN: That led to this line of questioning from member of parliament Adrian Sanders.
ADRIAN SANDERS, British parliamentarian: And, finally, are you familiar with the term willful blindness?
JAMES MURDOCH: Mr. Sanders, would you care to elaborate?
ADRIAN SANDERS: It is a term that came up in the Enron scandal. Willful blindness is a legal term. It states that if there is knowledge that you could have had and should have had, but chose not to have, you are still responsible.
JAMES MURDOCH: Mr. Sanders, do you have a question?
Respectfully, I just — I don’t know what you would like me to say.
ADRIAN SANDERS: The question was whether you aware…
JAMES MURDOCH: I’m not aware of that. I’m not aware of that particular phrase.
ADRIAN SANDERS: But now you are familiar because I have explained it to you.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
JAMES MURDOCH: Thank you, Mr. Sanders.
RUPERT MURDOCH: I have heard the phrase before. And we were not ever guilty of that.
ADRIAN SANDERS: Thank you.
JEFFREY BROWN: The elder Murdoch also took on the question of whether the families of 9/11 victims were subject to phone hacking in the U.S.
RUPERT MURDOCH: We have seen no evidence of that at all. And as far as we know, the FBI haven’t either. If they do, we will treat it exactly the same way as we treat it here. And I cannot believe it happened from anyone in America.
JEFFREY BROWN: M.P.s focused as well on the growing political dimensions of the scandal and the Murdochs’ ties to political power, especially Prime Minister David Cameron.
JIM SHERIDAN, British parliamentarian: Why did you enter the back door at Number 10 when you visited the prime minister following the last general election?
RUPERT MURDOCH: Well, because I was asked to.
JIM SHERIDAN: You were asked to go in the back door of Number 10?
RUPERT MURDOCH: Yes.
JIM SHERIDAN: Why would that be?
RUPERT MURDOCH: To avoid photographers in the front, I imagine. I don’t know. I was asked. I just did what I was told.
JEFFREY BROWN: Then, after more than two hours of testimony, the hearing was suddenly disrupted when a man in a plaid shirt rushed at Murdoch with what appeared to be a plate of white shaving cream. The assailant was taken away, and Murdoch cleaned up during a short recess.
When the hearing resumed, the questioning was no less forceful.
WOMAN: This terrible thing happened on your watch. Mr. Murdoch, have you considered resigning?
RUPERT MURDOCH: No.
WOMAN: Why not?
RUPERT MURDOCH: Because I feel that people I trusted — I’m not saying who — I don’t know what level — but let me down, and I think they behaved disgracefully and betrayed the company and me. And it’s for them to pay.
I think that, frankly, I’m the best person to clean this up.
JEFFREY BROWN: Once the Murdochs were done, another central figure in the scandal, Rebekah Brooks, appeared before the committee. She was editor of the now-defunct News of the World during the phone hacking, and later became chief executive at the tabloid’s British parent firm, News International, before resigning last week.
Brooks said she only recently learned that the phone of the young murder victim, Milly Dowler, had been targeted.
DAMIAN COLLINS, British parliamentarian: It seems, I think, incredible that you, as the editor, were so unaware of such fundamental issues to do with this investigation.
REBEKAH BROOKS, News of the World: I just — I think — in some ways, I think the opposite. I don’t know anyone in their right mind who would authorize, know, sanction, approve of anyone listening to the voice mails of Milly Dowler in those circumstances.
JEFFREY BROWN: Brooks was arrested on Sunday, and she repeatedly said today there were things she could not discuss due to the ongoing investigation. But she did say she has lasting regrets that everything didn’t come out long ago.
REBEKAH BROOKS: Of course I have regrets. I mean, the idea that Milly Dowler’s phone was accessed by someone being paid by the News of the World, or, even worse, authorized by someone at the News of the World, is as abhorrent to me as it is to everyone in this room. And it is an ultimate regret that the speed in which we have found out and tried to find out the bottom of this investigation has been too slow.
JEFFREY BROWN: Like the Murdochs, Brooks, too, was questioned about her ties to prime ministers past and present amid charges that British press executives and politicians have been too cozy.
REBEKAH BROOKS: The prime minister, David Cameron, and we have met — well, I read the other day that we have met 26 times. I don’t know if that’s absolutely correct. The fact is, I have never been to Downing Street while David Cameron has been prime minister. Yet, under Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Prime Minister Tony Blair, I did regularly go to Downing Street.
JEFFREY BROWN: And Brooks denied knowing about allegations that Murdoch reporters paid bribes to police for information.
REBEKAH BROOKS: I have never paid a policeman myself. I have never sanctioned or knowingly sanctioned a payment to a police officer.
JEFFREY BROWN: At a separate hearing, the just-resigned head of Scotland Yard, Sir Paul Stephenson, also denied wrongdoing. He said he was embarrassed that he’d hired a former News of the World executive, Neil Wallis, as a public relations consultant. Wallis has now been arrested.
SIR PAUL STEPHENSON, Metropolitan Police: I had no reason to connect Wallis with phone hacking. I had no reason to doubt his impropriety. Nothing had come to my attention. I had no knowledge of the previous inquiry, and I had no reason to inquire of the previous inquiry, and I had been given assurances by a senior-grade chief constable that actually there was nothing new.
JEFFREY BROWN: Away from the hearings, Scotland Yard announced today it found no outside involvement in the death of Sean Hoare, a former News of the World reporter who’d been an early whistle-blower in the scandal. Hoare was found dead Monday at his home north of London.