British Panel Questions Former Murdoch Executives

A parliamentary committee in London summoned four former top officials for Rupert Murdoch's British newspaper empire to face questions about the tabloid phone-hacking scandal there. Those former executives contradicted previous testimony from their old boss: James Murdoch.

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DAVID GREENE, host:

In London, four former executives of Rupert Murdoch's newspaper empire were summoned by a parliamentary committee yesterday. They faced questions about the tabloid phone hacking scandal that's been making headlines in Britain for weeks now. The version of events these executives offered, contradicted previous testimony from their old boss, James Murdoch. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik reports.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: It was a day of testy and colorful exchanges. From just about the outset, British lawmakers challenged the often forgetful former executives and lawyers for their collective veracity, memory, and integrity.

Mr. TOM WATSON: Do you accept you lied to us when you told us you investigated this and were satisfied with the explanations you received?

Mr. JIM SHERIDAN: Potentially, probably, I hear people say that incredible, that this was going on

Ms. LOUISE MENSCH: Would you not to admit, Mr. Crone, that your credibility has been somewhat damaged by...

FOLKENFLIK: Those voices belonged to MPs Tom Watson, Jim Sheridan, and Louise Mensch - who were grilling the senior executives and lawyers yesterday. The witnesses - by their own description - displayed an astonishing lack of curiosity in the face of explicit allegations of terrible wrongdoing by employees of their own paper, the now-shuttered tabloid News of the World. But the bigger conflict came into focus as the paper's former top lawyer - Tom Crone - and its final editor - Colin Myler - repeatedly clashed with testimony given by their old boss - the younger Murdoch.

Both said they told James Murdoch of the implications of a newly discovered and damning memo at a brief, but fraught, meeting in 2008. The memo proved phone hacking wasn't just limited to a lone rogue editor and a private investigator reporting on the royals. That meeting was swiftly followed by a major payoff to a target of phone hacking who was a figure in professional soccer - indicating another front in the scandal.

For example - here's Colin Myler, the paper's final editor before it was shut down this summer - who was being questioned by MP Damien Collins about the meeting with Murdoch and that memo.

Mr. DAMIEN COLLINS: He is very clear on his recollections of that meeting. You are not

Mr. COLIN MYLER: no I am clear - I'm sorry - I am clear. there was no ambiguity about the significance of that document - and what options were there for the company to take. Crone and Myler were vague about what they precisely said to James Murdoch - but their testimony contradicted what he had said earlier this summer. Here he was being questioned by MP Tom Watson - one of his most outspoken critics.

Mr. WATSON: When you signed off the Taylor payment, did you see or were you made aware of the full Neville email, the transcript of the hacked voicemail message?

Mr. JAMES MURDOCH: No, I was not aware of that at the time.

Mr. WATSON: But you paid an astronomical sum, and there was no reason to.

Mr. MURDOCH: There was every reason to settle the case, given the likelihood of losing the case, and given the damages that we had received counsel, would be levied.

GREENE: Witnesses said yesterday that confidential settlement - costing more than a million dollars - was a sound business investment to head off bad publicity and additional lawsuits. Then again - the former executives, at times, seemingly contradicted some of their own assurances two years ago, that there was no evidence of widespread voice mail hacking at the paper.

The testimony involved episodes that now appear minor, but in other circumstances, would themselves be explosive. For example, Crone acknowledged yesterday, he had reviewed files compiled by a private investigator working on behalf of the company that were filled with details of the private lives of two lawyers representing phone hacking victims against the Murdoch family's British firm.

In a statement yesterday, James Murdoch said he stands behind his earlier testimony. The committee has not yet decided whether to recall him. As one MP said, the whole thing was clear as mud.

David Folkenflik, NPR NEWS.

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