Murdoch Son Grilled Over Phone-Hacking Scandal

A steady drip of revelations in the News Corp. phone-hacking scandal has called into question James Murdoch's testimony before a parliamentary committee in July. Murdoch has been asked back to clarify the discrepancies.

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Today, NewsCorp executive James Murdoch faced a new round of hostile questions. For the second time, he appeared before British lawmakers to answer for his actions in the phone-hacking scandal now roilling his company. NewsCorp chairman Rupert Murdoch has groomed his son, James, to succeed him. But as NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik reports now, the younger Murdoch had a tough time dispelling doubts about his credibility.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: James Murdoch tried to strike a very delicate balance between contrition and confidence today, while staying away from accepting any personal responsibility. He said NewsCorp had wrongly lashed out at the handful of journalists who'd exposed wrongdoing at its tabloid, News of the World.

JAMES MURDOCH: If there was a mistake I think or a shift that we need to focus on, it was a tendency for a period of time to react to criticism or allegations, that is hostile or motivated commercial or politically...

FOLKENFLIK: No one accuses Murdoch of the approving illegal phone hack or police bribery at the heart of the scandal. He became chairman of NewsCorp's British wing in December 2007, after those activities are said to have stopped.

But his troubles are found in the classic questions surrounding cover-ups: What did he know and when did he know it? Company officials had declared the criminal activity was limited to a single rogue reporter and sole investigator focused on the royal family. This summer, Murdoch told MPs he didn't learn such practices were widespread until last year. But the paper's former top lawyer and top editor directly contradict him. They say they told Murdoch back in 2008 of a smoking gun email that proved hacking was rife.

They told of it, they said, in order to win his approval for a big payoff to keep a completely different victim of phone hacking out of public view.

MP Tom Watson has been a leading critic.

TOM WATSON: Mr. Murdoch, let me just ask you again. Did you mislead this committee in your original testimony?

MURDOCH: No, I did not.

WATSON: So if you didn't, who did?

FOLKENFLIK: Murdoch pointed to former attorney Tom Crone and former editor, Colin Myler, and said they should've told him of any criminal acts.

New circumstantial evidence supports the idea Murdoch was told, but no hard proof emerged today. Watson asked Murdoch if he knew the Mafia term omerta; helpfully defining it as a secret bond among ruthless people, who use intimidation, corruption and criminality to pursue their aims?

WATSON: Would you agree with me that this is an accurate description of News International in the U.K.?

MURDOCH: Absolutely not. I think that's offensive and it's not true.

FOLKENFLIK: Watson listed various allegations against NewsCorp in the U.K., many of them substantiated.

WATSON: Mr. Murdoch, you must be the first Mafia boss in history who didn't know he was running a criminal enterprise.

FOLKENFLIK: New revelations undermine Murdoch's positions further. The company had hoped to quarantine the scandal by closing the News of the World. Yet, a senior reporter for the sister tabloid, the Sun, has now been arrested on suspicion of bribing police.

Murdoch also now concedes his company paid private investigators to follow MP Tom Watson in 2009. And PIs were paid to follow the two leading attorneys for phone hacking victims for more than a year, only ending in May - a hardball effort to dig up damaging material on the lawyers and their children.

MURDOCH: I want to say, for the record, it is appalling. It is something I would never condone and the company should never condone. And it was shocking when I found out. And it's just unacceptable.

FOLKENFLIK: Unlike the original hacking and bribery, these developments occurred on Murdoch's watch.

MP Paul Farrelly echoed his colleague's questions about Murdoch's competence, pointing to his denials even after a major expose in The Guardian newspaper.

PAUL FARRELLY: So, even at that stage, of the middle of 2009, as the executive chairman of News International, you are possibly the only person in London who still thinks that there's one rogue reporter and one private detective?

FOLKENFLIK: Later this month, shareholders and the British broadcasting giant BskyB will decide whether Murdoch should continue as nonexecutive chairman. NewsCorp owns nearly 40 percent of that company's stock, but its corporate directors could push him out, even if he survives the vote.

MPs landed no knockout blow today, but Murdoch did little to improve his own credibility or his chances of running the company.

David Folkenflik, NPR News , London.

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