x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Pie in the eye for Rupert Murdoch at hacking hearing

Activist splatters media tycoon with foam in farcical end to three-hour grilling by British MPs in which the News Corp chief denies responsibility for phone-hacking and bribery while admitting it was 'the most humble day of my life'.

James Murdoch (left) and Rupert Murdoch giving evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee in the House of Commons in London on the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.
James Murdoch (left) and Rupert Murdoch giving evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee in the House of Commons in London on the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.

LONDON // A public grilling by British MPs that Rupert Murdoch described as "the most humble day of my life" ended in farce yesterday when a protester splattered him with a plateful of shaving foam.

The media tycoon's wife Wendi, sitting immediately behind him, launched herself at the attacker and thrust him backwards.

The protester had begun his attack with the cry "You naughty billionaire" before he was grabbed by police and bundled outside, his own face covered in foam thanks to Mrs Murdoch's rapid response. He was arrested and led away in handcuffs.

Some of the foam did find its way on to 80-year-old Mr Murdoch, however, and when the inquiry resumed 10 minutes later he was in shirt sleeves, the jacket of his blue pinstripe suit apparently on its way to the cleaners.

A man called Jonnie Marbles, who describes himself as an activist and comedian, wrote on Twitter just before the incident: "It is a far better thing that I do now than I have ever done before … #splat."

The incident proved the highlight of a lengthy but otherwise barely illuminating session in which Mr Murdoch flatly rejected suggestions that he was ultimately responsible for the News International phone-hacking and police-bribery scandal that has rocked his global media empire.

Forced to answer questions from a committee of MPs for the first time in 40 years of newspaper ownership in Britain, the News Corp chairman admitted that he had been misled by senior executives over the scandal.

But apart from expressing shame over the News of the World's phone hacking, there was no mea culpa and, in the end, very little new about the scandal that has resulted in the closure of News Corp's best-selling newspaper; the withdrawal of its bid to take full control of the UK's leading satellite broadcaster; and the resignations of some of Mr Murdoch's closest lieutenants.

Indeed, the media mogul often described as one of the most powerful men in the world came across as a rather frail, uncertain, hard-of-hearing octogenarian during his appearance before the Commons culture and media committee, which was originally scheduled to last an hour but went on for three.

Originally, Mr Murdoch and his son James, the head of News Corp's interests in Europe and Asia, had refused to attend the hearing, but changed their minds after the committee's chairman, John Whittingdale, issued a parliamentary writ against them.

Supposedly, it was the day British politics reasserted its supremacy over the Murdoch press after four decades in which successive party leaders had sought his approval because of the influence wielded by his newspapers.

Initially, at least, Mr Murdoch appeared to follow the script, declaring to the all-party group of MPs, telling them: "This is the most humble day of my life."

But the old warhorse showed some of his familiar feistiness near the end of the session when he started to attack the MPs for the handling of their own scandal over expenses.

The start of the hearing in Portcullis House, adjacent to the Houses of Parliament of Westminster, was briefly delayed when a small group of protesters was removed from the back of the committee room. So many of the world's media wanted to attend the event that the inquiry had to be piped to two overflow rooms.

Referring to the disclosure just over two weeks ago that News of the World journalists had hacked the mobile phone voicemail of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler in 2002, Mr Murdoch said that he was "shocked, appalled and ashamed".

Yet the bulk of the questions were fielded by James Murdoch, his father appearing unable to hear some of the questions and spending much of the time with his hands clasped on the table in front of him, his head bowed.

James Murdoch said that the hacking was "a matter of great regret of mine, my father's and everyone at News Corporation". James Murdoch maintained that News International, News Corp's newspaper company in the UK, had started to become aware of the extent of the hacking, possibly involving almost 4,000 people, only when evidence emerged during a case brought by the actress Sienna Miller late in 2010.

"Subsequent to our discovery of that information … the company immediately went to look at additional records around the individual involved, the company alerted the police and restarted, on that basis, the investigation that is now under way," he said.

Tom Watson, a Labour MP who has campaigned tirelessly to expose the hacking since the News of the World's royal reporter was jailed in 2007 for hacking the voicemails of Buckingham Palace staff, asked Murdoch senior if he had been misled by senior members of staff. "Clearly," he replied.

Mr Watson quoted evidence given to the committee eight years ago by Rebekah Brooks, then editor of the News of the World who resigned last week as News International's chief executive, when she admitted that she knew payments had been made to police.

"I am now aware of that. I was not aware at the time," said Mr Murdoch. "I'm also aware that she amended that considerably [saying she knew of no specific incidents] very quickly afterwards."

Mr Watson said: "I think she amended it seven or eight years afterwards. But did you or anyone else in your organisation investigate it at the time?"

"No. I didn't know of it," said Mr Murdoch. "The News of the World is less than 1 per cent of our company. I employ 53,000 people around the world who are proud and great and ethical and distinguished people, professionals in their work. I'm spread watching and appointing people whom I trust to run those divisions."

Asked why he had shut down the News of the World, Mr Murdoch replied: "We felt ashamed at what happened. We had broken our trust with our readers."

James Murdoch admitted he was "very surprised" to hear that Clive Goodman, the jailed royal reporter, and Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator who organised the hacking and was also jailed in 2007, had their legal fees paid by News International after their convictions.

Mrs Brooks gave evidence after the Murdochs, opening her remarks with an apology for phone hacking and described allegations of voicemail intercepts of crime victims as "pretty horrific and abhorrent". She said she was told by the News of the World that allegations of phone hacking by the paper's journalists were untrue, and that she realised the gravity of the situation only when she saw documents lodged in a civil damages case by Sienna Miller last year.

Mrs Brooks was arrested on Sunday on suspicion of conspiring to intercept communications and on suspicion of corruption.

Earlier, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Paul Stephenson, who announced his resignation two days ago, told Parliament's Home Affairs Committee that he had "no reason" to suspect another former News of the World journalist of phone-hacking when he worked for the police. Neil Wallis, a former senior executive at the paper, was arrested last week as part of the UK police inquiry into the hacking. Mr Wallis worked as a paid communications consultant for the force in 2009 and 2010.

"It was only several weeks ago that I became aware Wallis may be a suspect, and it was only early last week I was told he may be arrested," Mr Stephenson said.

dsapsted@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Associated Press and Bloomberg News