Murdochs refuse to go before UK parliament

2011-07-14 17:34

London - Rupert Murdoch on Thursday refused a demand from Britain’s parliament to answer questions over alleged crimes at one of his newspapers, leaving a senior executive from his media empire to face lawmakers keen to break the media mogul’s grip on politics.

British police arrested a ninth suspect, named by media as a senior former editor of Murdoch’s News of the World, adding weight to a government call for the media regulator to decide whether his business is fit to run British television stations.

Murdoch, 80, has already been forced to close the News of the World and back down on his biggest acquisition plan yet - the takeover of British pay TV operator BSkyB - due to an outcry over allegations reporters accessed private phone messages.

He and his son James, the heir apparent to his News Corp empire, have so far stood by executive Rebekah Brooks, who runs its British newspaper arm and was a friend of Prime Minister David Cameron until he echoed calls for her to go.

Brooks, who edited the News of the World at the time of one of the most serious alleged incidents, agreed on Thursday to appear before the committee next week, but said the police inquiry might restrict what she could say.

Murdoch, a US citizen, said he would only give evidence to a public inquiry announced by Cameron after questions were raised over the role of some police officers in the scandal and over the relations between British politicians and media owners.

Murdoch’s son James, chairperson of News Corp’s UK newspaper arm who the company said had dual US/UK citizenship, said he could not appear before parliament until next month.

The reception is certain to be hostile. During a heated debate on the hacking scandal on Wednesday, Dennis Skinner, a veteran left-wing Labour member of parliament described Murdoch as “this cancer on the body politic”. Murdoch and other senior executives have denied any knowledge of the alleged practices.

Global fallout  

Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg urged the Murdochs to face the music and parliament’s august deputy Serjeant at Arms issued them a summons to appear.

“You can’t hide away form this level of public anguish and anger and indeed interest,” Clegg told reporters.

“When you are in that position of power you are also accountable to the millions of people who consume the product of your newspapers, television channels,” he said.

However, constitutional expert Vernon Bogdanor told Reuters that Rupert Murdoch, currently in London to manage the crisis, could sidestep the demand by returning to the United States.

“He could be summoned before parliament for contempt of parliament if he refuses to appear, but to avoid that he could simply go abroad.”

The allegations of phone hacking, which reached a peak as Murdoch’s British bid came up for approval this month, are now reverberating around the world.

Some US lawmakers called for an investigation to see if the billionaire’s News Corp had broken American laws while in Australia, where Murdoch was born, the prime minister said her government may review media laws.

Murdoch, who owns 39% of British pay TV operator BSkyB, withdrew his $12bn bid to take over the rest of it on Wednesday after British politicians united in a call for him to pull out of the deal.

Clegg noted media regulator Ofcom was already looking into whether News Corp, whose British newspaper arm News International is at the heart of the scandal, should be allowed to maintain its existing stake in BSkyB.

“Clearly there are big questions about the fitness and properness of News International and that is exactly why Ofcom are now looking at it,” Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrat deputy coalition partners, told BBC Radio 4.

“The thing that I think isn’t quite clear to me at least is exactly how fit and proper tests are applied,” he added.

The catalysts for public disgust over the hacking allegations were reports a News Corp newspaper had hacked into the voicemails of murder victims.

“To see some of the things that have been done to intrude on people’s privacy, particularly in moments of grief and stress in the family lives, I’ve truly been disgusted to see it,” Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard told Australia’s National Press Club.

“I anticipate that we will have a discussion amongst parliamentarians about this, about the best review and way of dealing with all of this,” she said.

“Dark arts” of journalism

US-based News Corp has been rocked by a series of scandals alleging journalists and hired investigators working for its flagship News of the World tabloid hacked into the voicemails of thousands of people, from victims of notorious crimes to families of soldiers killed in the war in Afghanistan.

The allegations, which include bribing police officers for information, galvanised British lawmakers across parties to oppose a man long used to being courted by the political elite.

The crisis has also tarnished Cameron, who faces questions about why he appointed a former News of the World editor as his communications chief.

Clegg distanced himself from the decision on Thursday.

“We did discuss it. Of course we discussed it. But at the end of the day I make my appointments to my own office and David Cameron makes his own appointments.”

Politicians in the United States are taking notice, too.

Three prominent US lawmakers called on federal officials to investigate whether News Corp broke any American laws, meaning Murdoch could potentially be battling investigations on both sides of the Atlantic.