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July 18, 2011

Murdochs Face Questioning in Britain About Phone Hacking

British parliament members questioned media mogul Rupert Murdoch about a phone-hacking scandal that has led to resignations or arrests of journalists and police officials in Britain, and the closure of the largest-selling English-language newspaper.  The inquiry was interrupted after a man attempted to assault Rupert Murdoch.

News Corporation Chairman Rupert Murdoch was hit on the shoulder with a foam pie.  A man was quickly taken away and handcuffed by police.

It was a dramatic episode near the close of a parliamentary session in which Murdoch spoke to British parliament members at a hearing in London.

"I would just like to say one sentence: This is the most humble day of my life," he said.

He said he was "shocked, appalled and ashamed" by the accusations against his company.

VOA's Steve Norman spoke with Stephen Ward, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who says behavior like the phone hacking scandal occurs because of heavy competition between media outlets and the need to keep earnings up.

One of Murdoch’s British papers, News of the World, is alleged to have hacked into the voicemail of thousands of people, including celebrities and a teenage murder victim.  The tabloid, once Britain’s top-selling Sunday paper, was closed earlier this month.

Murdoch testified he does not consider himself personally responsible for the fiasco.  He said he blamed the people he had trusted to run the company, one of the world's largest media conglomerates.

A number of top executives have resigned, including Rebekah Brooks as chief executive of News International, the British publishing wing of News Corporation.  Brooks also appeared at the hearing and apologized for the phone hacking.  She described the allegations as horrific and abhorrent.

Murdoch sat beside his son James, European head of News Corporation.

"I have no knowledge and there is no evidence that I am aware of that Mrs. Brooks or Mr. Hinton or any of those executives had knowledge of that and their assertions, certainly Mrs. Brooks' assertion to me, of her knowledge of those things has been clear.  Nonetheless those resignations have been accepted on the basis that there is no evidence today that I have seen or that I have any knowledge of, that there was any impropriety by them," he said.

James Murdoch said he, his father, and the company are sorry for the illegal voicemail interceptions.

The scandal has unveiled links between the media in Britain, politicians, and the police.

Two senior police officers have been forced to resign and Prime Minister David Cameron has been brought under criticism for hiring a former News of the World editor as his press secretary.

Tony Travers is a politics expert at the London School of Economics. "What it reveals is something about the proximity of politicians to this particular media organization, but also to the police who were investigating allegations about News International, clearly, also now seem to have been much too close to one particular media outlet," said Travers.

Travers says the fiasco has undermined Murdoch in Britain and may do so in the United States as well.

"It is hard to see how it will end in Britain, but what appears to be the case is that it will weaken Rupert Murdoch’s grip on his company in Britain and beyond, and possibly have implications for other titles owned by him here," he said.

There have been allegation that News International journalists hacked the phones of 9/11 victims.  Rupert Murdoch said those claims are untrue, but that he would investigate if evidence emerges.

The Murdochs were questioned by a House of Commons committee on Culture, Media, and Sport.