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Murdoch son sticks to story: I knew nothing about phone hacking

Grilled for almost three hours by a UK parliamentary committee for the second time in four months, there is not a whiff of mea culpa from James Murdoch, heir apparent to his father's media empire.

LONDON // James Murdoch, heir apparent to his father's media empire, resolutely stuck to his story yesterday that he knew nothing about widespread phone hacking at the News of the World until late last year.

Grilled for almost three hours by a UK parliamentary committee for the second time in four months, there was not a whiff of mea culpa from the head of Rupert Murdoch's European and Asian interests, despite being compared by one MP to a mafia boss.

With an eloquence one might expect from a billionaire Harvard dropout who is now No 2 in the family's global business, he "disputed vigorously" claims that he had misled the committee in earlier evidence, appearing mildly miffed that anyone should question his version of events.

The problem for Mr Murdoch was that, when he originally sat alongside his father in July testifying to the House of Commons culture and media committee, he maintained that he only discovered a year ago that there was a culture of phone hacking at the best-selling Sunday tabloid, which Rupert Murdoch shut down at the height of the scandal this summer.

However, Tom Crone, the newspaper's senior lawyer, and Colin Myler, the editor, subsequently informed the committee that Mr Murdoch, 39, had misinformed them and that, at a meeting in early June 2008, they had warned him that there was evidence that the hacking went far beyond the activities of one reporter - the former royal editor Clive Goodman who, along with private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, was jailed in 2007 for hacking the voicemails of Buckingham Palace staff.

Yesterday, MP after MP asked Mr Murdoch why his version of events was so different from Mr Crone's and Mr Myler's when he authorised an out-of-court settlement with Gordon Taylor, the head of the Professional Footballers' Association, who was suing the newspaper after his phone was hacked.

At that June 2008 meeting Mr Crone and Mr Myler claimed they had told Mr Murdoch of the "For Neville" email: a message sent by Mr Goodman to News of the World executive Neville Thurlbeck in which he threatened to blow the whistle on widespread phone hacking at the newspaper.

Additionally, a legal opinion on the Taylor case prepared in May 2008, by leading barrister Michael Silverleaf for the newspaper group warned there was "a powerful case that there is [or was] a culture of illegal information access" at the company.

Nevertheless, James Murdoch reiterated his insistence that he knew nothing of such documents when he authorised a payout to Mr Taylor, which, with legal fees, approached £1 million (Dh5.9m), at the June, 2008, meeting.

Instead, he suggested that it was Mr Crone and Mr Myler who had misled parliament when they had told parliament that he had been made aware of the documents.

"Certainly in the evidence they gave to you in 2011 in regard to my own knowledge, I believe it was inconsistent and not right, and I dispute it vigorously," he said. "I believe their testimony was misleading and I dispute it."

But the dozen MPs on the committee appeared unconvinced, displaying incredulity that Mr Murdoch could have authorised such a large payout to Mr Taylor - far greater than any other payments made since the phone hacking became public knowledge - without wanting to discover why.

"You must be the first mafia boss in history who didn't know he was running a criminal enterprise," commented Labour MP Tom Watson, who has been at the forefront of parliamentary efforts to expose phone hacking, which is now believed to have at least 5,000 potential targets.

But Mr Murdoch stuck to his guns, rejecting suggestions from Liberal Democrat MP Adrian Sanders that he had suffered "wilful blindness" over the extent of phone hacking.

However, he did acknowledge that the company should not have been so ready to dismiss allegations about the scandal.

"If there was a mistake ... it was the tendency for a period of time to react to criticism or allegations as hostile or motivated commercially or politically, and what not," he said.

"What we didn't do, I think, necessarily is reflect as dispassionately as we might have."

The business community will get its first chance to pass its verdict on Mr Murdoch's performance when, at the end of this month, he stands for re-election as chairman of BskyB, the UK's foremost satellite broadcaster in which the Murdoch family has a stake of almost 40 per cent.

 

dsapsted@thenational.ae

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