x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Murdoch backs down against UK parliament as US probe begins

Facing possibility of being imprisoned by House of Commons, Rupert Murdoch agreed to appear before MPs investigating phone hacking scandal, as FBI began probing claims that his News Corp tried to hack telephones of victims of 9/11 attacks.

Rupert Murdoch, right, the chairman of News Corporation, walks to his flat with his son James Murdoch, the chief executive of News Corporation for Europe and Asia, in London last Sunday - the day their News of the World published its final edition because of the phone hacking scandal. Facundo Arrizabalaga / EPA
Rupert Murdoch, right, the chairman of News Corporation, walks to his flat with his son James Murdoch, the chief executive of News Corporation for Europe and Asia, in London last Sunday - the day their News of the World published its final edition because of the phone hacking scandal. Facundo Arrizabalaga / EPA

LONDON // Rupert Murdoch was forced into a humiliating U-turn last night when, facing the possibility of being fined or even imprisoned by the House of Commons, he agreed to appear before a parliamentary committee next week investigating the phone hacking scandal.

At the same time the scandal threatened to cross the Atlantic, as a law enforcement official in New York, said the FBI was investigating allegations that employees of Mr Murdoch's News Corp tried to hack into the telephones of victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.

The FBI's New York office has not commented, and there was no immediate response yesterday from News Corp or the US attorney's office in Manhattan.

Yesterday morning Mr Murdoch and his son James, who heads News Corp's European and Asian interests, had rejected an "invitation" to be questioned before the House of Commons Culture and Media Select Committee on Tuesday. Both said they were "unavailable".

Infuriated by the rejection, the cross-party committee of MPs issued summonses for Mr Murdoch and his son James to attend or face parliamentary contempt charges.

Last night, in the latest twist of the ever-evolving scandal, the Murdochs bowed to the escalating political pressure and said that they would, after all, give evidence.

A News Corp spokesman said: "We are in the process of writing to the select committee with the intention that Mr James Murdoch and Mr Rupert Murdoch will attend next Tuesday's meeting."

John Whittingdale, the committee's chairman, welcomed the pair's sudden change of mind. "It will be the first time that Rupert Murdoch and James Murdoch, and indeed, Rebekah Brooks [the chief executive of Murdoch newspapers in the UK] will have answered questions about this," he told Sky News.

"They will be appearing before a parliamentary committee so I would hope they would take it seriously and they will give us the answers that not just we want to hear but I think an awful lot of people will want to hear."

James Murdoch had informed the committee earlier in the day that he would not be available to give evidence to the committee until August 10.

His 80-year-old father said that he, too, was unavailable on Tuesday and that he was only prepared to discuss an appearance at some future date with the MPs.

Mr Murdoch did say, however, that he was "fully prepared" to give evidence to the judicial inquiry that the government has ordered into phone hacking and allegations of police bribery by journalists at the News of the World, the best-selling tabloid that closed on Sunday.

Later, Sir George Young, a cabinet minister in the coalition government with the title of Leader of the Commons, spelt out to parliament the possible consequences of the Murdochs' "unavailability" on Tuesday afternoon.

"A select committee can make a report to the House [of Commons] if it's believed a contempt has been committed," he said.

"A range of sanctions are available to the House for contempt. One includes you, Mr Speaker, admonishing somebody who appears at the bar, a responsibility I know you would discharge with aplomb.

"There are a range of other penalties including fines and imprisonment, but that has not been used for some time."

Earlier in the day, Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister in the coalition government, said that Mr Murdoch and his son should submit themselves to being questioned by the committee "if they have any shred of sense of responsibility or accountability for their position of power".

Mr Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, said there were "big questions" to answer about the fitness of Mr Murdoch's empire to own media in Britain.

"This whole episode has cast a spotlight on the murky world of the British establishment of the police, the press, and politicians," he told the BBC.

One key figure who did agree yesterday to appear before the committee on Tuesday was Mrs Brooks, a former News of the World editor.

However, she wrote to the committee that while she "welcomed the opportunity" to give evidence, she might not be able to answer detailed questions about the phone hacking.

"Given that we are in the midst of [a police] investigation, and we do not want to prejudice it, I hope you will understand why we feel it would not be appropriate to respond to such questions at present in order to be consistent with the police's approach, and that as a result this may prevent me from discussing these matters in detail," she wrote.

Yesterday, Neil Wallis, a News of the World deputy editor under Andy Coulson, the man who went on to become Prime Minister David Cameron's communications director before being forced to resign in January, became the ninth person this year to be arrested in connection with the scandal.

Mr Wallis, 60, was arrested at his home in west London early yesterday morning "on suspicion of conspiring to intercept communications", according to a police spokesman.

Meanwhile, in the US yesterday, a growing number of members of Congress - Democrats and Republicans - was demanding a justice department inquiry into whether phone hacking had been conducted by News Corp in the US and whether the alleged payments to police in Britain violated American anti-corruption laws.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae