December 8, 2023

Murdochs Deny That They Knew of Illegal Acts

In two hours of intense questioning broken only by a bizarre incident in which Mr. Murdoch was accosted with what appeared to be a foil pie plate filled with shaving cream, both he and his son James declared repeatedly that they had been shocked to discover something that has become increasingly apparent: that phone hacking and other illegal behavior were endemic at their News of the World tabloid, which is now defunct.

Even so, the Murdochs and Rebekah Brooks, a former editor at the paper who resigned from the News Corporation on Friday, only to be arrested on Sunday on suspicion of phone hacking and bribing the police, apologized again and again for the failures at their company.

“I would just like to say one sentence,” Rupert Murdoch said, breaking at one point into a long answer by his son, the News Corporation’s deputy chief operating officer. “This is the most humble day of my life.”

But his humility did not extend to declaring that he was at fault or that he should step down from his company.

“I feel that people I trusted — I don’t know who, on what level — have let me down, and I think they have behaved disgracefully, and it’s for them to pay,” he said. “And I think, frankly, that I’m the best person to see it through.”

While the elder Mr. Murdoch has long had the reputation of being a hands-on manager, pressing for and savoring the scoops scored by the newspapers he had always felt were the soul of his media empire, he said in his testimony that in the case of The News of the World, he had no knowledge of the specifics of what was going on.

He did not know, for example, that his company had paid confidential out-of-court settlements of £600,000 and £1 million to two victims of phone hacking. Nor, he said, did he know that the company was paying the legal fees of Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator under contract to The News of the World who was convicted in 2007 of hacking into the phones of staff members of the royal family.

James Murdoch said he had not known about paying Mr. Mulcaire’s legal fees either, and was “as surprised as you are that some of these arrangements had been made.”

The Murdochs shut down the tabloid last week in a futile effort to contain a crisis that has also claimed the careers of two high-ranking police officers and two top News Corporation officials, caused the company to withdraw a much-wanted $12 billion takeover bid of a broadcasting company, and led to the arrests of 10 former News of the World editors and reporters.

The hearings (Ms. Brooks appeared separately) provided a gripping spectacle of executives who once commanded unassailable political power enduring sustained questioning from lawmakers enjoying a newfound confidence.

There was Rupert Murdoch, looking every bit his age, appearing at times to lose his concentration and sometimes taking so long to answer questions that he seemed not to have heard them at all. There was James Murdoch, his 38-year-old heir apparent, sharp, engaged and seeming alarmed at the prospect that his father would lose his way, quick to leap in when the elder Mr. Murdoch wavered or appeared uncertain.

Mr. Murdoch’s glamorous wife, Wendi Murdoch, 42, sat directly behind her husband in the visitors’ section of the hearing room. At one point, a man suddenly rose from his seat and advanced on Rupert Murdoch, striking him with what appeared to be a pie tin filled with shaving cream, or possibly custard. That caused Mrs. Murdoch to rise from her chair and slug the attacker with a swift right swing.

The committee chairman, John Whittingdale, a Consevative member of Parliament, hastily declared a short recess.

The attacker was later identified in British news reports as Jonathan May-Bowles, a stand-up comedian. According to The Guardian, he was sending Twitter messages about the incident. “It is a far better thing that I do now than I have ever done before #splat,” the attacker apparently wrote, in a homage to “A Tale of Two Cities,” just before unleashing the foam.

He was escorted from the building in handcuffs.

Alan Cowell, Ravi Somaiya and Graham Bowley contributed reporting.

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