A British parliament committee said Tuesday newspaper and television magnate Rupert Murdoch is “not a fit person” to head a media company, part of an unexpectedly strong rebuke to one of the world's most powerful media moguls.
The multy-party committee said Murdoch “turned a blind eye and exhibited willful blindness” while members of his staff electronically broke into telephone voice-mail systems and allegedly bribed policemen to gather information for their stories.
The report says there were “huge failings of corporate governance” that allowed tolerance for law-breaking to permeate his organization. It also says Murdoch’s company misled parliament and tried to cover up the wrongdoing.
The head of the journalism department at City University London, Professor George Brock, said the strong words in the report were not expected.
“I think the report has taken one or two people, including me, a bit by surprise because you can be declared unfit to hold a broadcasting license if you are, in the phrase in the law, ‘a not fit and proper person,’” he said.
The parliamentary committee does not have the power to make that decision, but its report likely will be taken into consideration by Britain’s broadcasting authority. The authority said Tuesday it is “continuing to assess the evidence.”
Murdoch’s News Corporation owns 40 percent of British Sky Broadcasting, the country’s largest cable-TV channel, and it owns the U.S.-based, politically conservative Fox News network. It also owns several British newspapers, including the Times and the Sunday Times, and the most popular daily paper, The Sun.
The phone-hacking allegations forced the closure of Britain’s largest Sunday newspaper, The News of the World, and the resignation of several top Murdoch executives.
Scandal's fallout continues
In a statement Tuesday, the company said it is “carefully reviewing the select committee’s report and will respond shortly.” It acknowledged wrongdoing at the closed newspaper, and apologized “to everyone whose privacy was invaded.”
Rupert Murdoch and his son, James, have been forced to testify to inquiry panels in sessions broadcast live on television. The parliament committee said James Murdoch should have been more attentive to emails about phone-hacking at the family’s British media company, which he ran until he stepped down as the scandal built momentum in recent months.
Brock said this report, and others to come from ongoing inquiries, could push the senior Murdoch, one of the world’s most powerful and determined executives, to also step back from the leading role in his global media empire.
“One of the outcomes that people have always considered possible is that Murdoch, who is now aged 81, might have to step back from control of the company," said Brock. "I do not think he particularly wants to do that. But there has to come a moment sooner or later where he is going to step back. And it could be that the scandal is going to get so bad that it’s quite possible that he could step back, yes.”
There also is a political aspect to this scandal. The committee report was endorsed by members from the opposition Labor Party and by the Liberal Democrats, who are part of the governing coalition. But members from the senior coalition partner, the Conservative Party, did not endorse the report, saying the conclusion that Rupert Murdoch is “not a fit person” to run a media company was not justified.
One recent revelation of the investigations is that an aide to a government minister kept Murdoch informed about deliberations on his bid to buy a controlling interest in Sky Broadcasting. Brock said Murdoch has been close to British politicians of all parties, but now the scandal is reaching dangerously close to Prime Minister David Cameron.
“Various recent revelations have started to come uncomfortably close to the prime minister in his office in Downing Street, and it is beginning to look as if David Cameron is beginning to be really rather worried about the implications of this scandal for his government overall,” said Brock.
A judicial inquiry into the phone-hacking scandal is continuing, as are several police investigations. And more reports critical of Rupert and James Murdoch are expected.