At one point during Thursday morning’s parliamentary grilling of James Murdoch, a British MP asked a pointed question that cut to the heart of the young media executive’s professional and legal dilemma.
“What do you think was worse,” Tory MP John Whittingdale, the chairman of the culture committee, asked the third-in-command of News Corporation, “knowing what was going on and being willfully blind, or not knowing what was going on?”
Mr. Murdoch, the son of CEO Rupert Murdoch and the head of News Corp.’s British and European operations, had been hauled back to the powerful parliamentary select committee to answer questions about a string of new documents and revelations related to what the committee called “widespread criminality” at his erstwhile News of the World tabloid.
The allegations involve thousands of cases of spying, phone-hacking, police bribing and other acts said to have been committed by investigators and reporters hired by News Corp. papers – including hacking into the phone of a murder victim and large-scale spying on the families of Sept. 11 terror-attack victims, government lawyers investigating the scandal, the children of those lawyers, and at least two of the senior MPs on the committee. These claims are the subject of ongoing police investigations.
Mr. Murdoch, faced with documents proving that he had attended meetings to discuss million-pound legal payouts to victims of this surveillance, had a stark choice. He could say he was fully aware, and therefore immoral and potentially criminal, or he could say that he was unaware, and therefore amazingly ignorant of his company’s workings and potentially incompetent.
He took the latter route, claiming that he had not seen key memos about criminality identified by executives in his organization – including one from the corporation’s senior legal counsel warning that there was “a culture of illegal information access” – and had not bothered to ask the reasons for payouts of hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Instead, he turned on two of his subordinates, Colin Myler, the News of the World’s former editor; and Tom Crone, formerly its chief legal executive. In earlier hearings, those executives had argued that Mr. Murdoch was aware of and personally authorized much of the activity.
“If [Mr. Myler]had known that there was widespread criminality, I think he should have told me,” Mr. Murdoch told the MPs.
He also said that he had failed to notice the significance of the huge sums of cash, or read the memos warning him of illegality, because he was overwhelmed by the activities of the world’s second-largest media conglomerate.
“This is a company of over 50,000 employees globally, and appropriately we rely on executives in different bodies within the company to tell us what’s going on,” he said. “It’s impossible to manage every single detail of what’s going on.”
That failed to convince the MPs, who used their parliamentary privilege to denounce Mr. Murdoch as a criminal.
“You must be the first Mafia boss in history who didn’t know he was running a criminal enterprise,” said Labour MP Tom Watson, who asked Mr. Murdoch if he knew what the Italian word omerta (pact of secrecy) means. Mr. Murdoch seemed shocked, and replied: “Mr. Watson, please, I think that’s inappropriate.”
News Corp. has already shut down the News of the World, which had a circulation of more than two million, after the criminal scandal threatened the viability of the conglomerate, which also owns The Sun, The Times of London, The Wall Street Journal, Fox News and Sky News.
But if more charges directed at other newspapers result from the police investigations, which involve more than 5,000 claims of spying and hundreds of millions of e-mail messages, then Mr. Murdoch said he cannot rule out shutting down other newspapers, including The Sun, which is Britain’s largest-circulation paper, selling three million copies daily.
“I don’t think we can rule out any corporate reaction to behaviour or wrongdoing,” he said.
That isn’t inconceivable, after Sun reporter Jamie Pyatt was arrested last week on charges of having bribed police officials.
Mr. Murdoch spent much of the two-hour-and-37-minute interrogation issuing robust apologies for his paper’s behaviour, which included editorials denouncing the spied-upon MPs he was facing.
“It is my great regret that things went wrong at the News of the World … and that is something that I’m very sorry for,” he said.
Mr. Murdoch and his father could face shareholder wrath over the allegations, but it is unlikely that he will lose his position as News Corp.’s voting shares are closely held by the Murdoch family.