11.09.11

Murdoch Back in the Dock

James Murdoch will be grilled by a committee of British members of parliament today. What are the key questions that could bring down Rupert Murdoch’s son and presumed heir?

It’s feet-to-the fire time for James Murdoch. Tomorrow, he goes before a committee of members of parliament in Westminster for a second grilling over the phone-hacking scandal that has battered the company his father, Rupert, has spent much of his life building and leading. At James Murdoch’s last appearance, the young chief executive of News Corp. in Europe and Asia denied any suggestion that he knew the extent of illicit snooping at the now-defunct News of the World, the company’s best-selling Sunday tabloid. If his inquisitors were unconvinced, they had little firm evidence to support their suspicions.

This time will be different. Plenty has emerged since Murdoch and his 80-year-old father were first quizzed by the Commons Culture, Media, and Sport Committee back in July. Fresh revelations seem to support the claim that Murdoch junior must have known that the wrongdoing went beyond a single rogue reporter and that he was complicit in a coverup. That’s not to mention the disclosure of more grubby practices at The News of the World.

Murdoch should expect a roasting. In the deceptively mild words of John Whittingdale, chairman of the committee, the MPs now want to “tie up a few loose ends.” That means they’ve recalled Murdoch to explain some glaring discrepancies between his own account of events and statements from former employees and lawyers. Put simply, the versions of events are irreconcilable.

Will the MPs manage to nail Murdoch? It’s plain from last summer’s confrontation that the committee is weak on forensic know-how. What’s more, it’s hampered by procedural rules that allow each member a chance to grandstand. But tomorrow’s task should be simpler. The burden is on Murdoch to square his previous testimony with the new evidence. As in any good cross-examination they need only focus on a few key questions. For example:

According to recent press reports, Rebekah Brooks, the former CEO of News International, has received a payoff worth more than $2 million as well as the use of a chauffeured car and an office. Can you confirm?

OK, that’s not strictly relevant but it should at least rattle the witness. Much of the public’s outrage has been directed at Brooks—arrested in July—who previously served as editor of The News of the World. The very idea of such a payoff will have caused offense and reinforced the impression that News International, the part of News Corporation that oversees the company’s British newspapers, is out of touch with national sentiment.

Over the last few days, a former policeman has claimed that he received regular payments from News International for carrying out covert surveillance work on behalf of The News of the World. His targets reportedly included Prince William and two lawyers who have represented the victims of phone-hacking. How can you justify such payments?

Another question to soften up the witness. The use of the private investigators—admitted by News International—bolsters the impression of the company as a sleazy operation, prepared to adopt morally indefensible tactics in pursuit of a story or to dig up dirt to blackmail its critics.

In a letter that has come to light since our last hearing, Clive Goodman, the former royal correspondent of The News of the World, has said that phone-hacking was at one time widely discussed at the paper’s editorial meeting. If so, can we really believe that senior executives were unaware of the practice?

Strong stuff, but though Goodman’s evidence is apparently damning, his reputation is questionable. This was the journalist who was jailed for authorizing the hacking of voicemails of members of the royal family. What’s more, he has a powerful grievance against News International. The letter in question was to support a claim for unfair dismissal.

Your previous testimony to this committee has been openly questioned by two former senior executives of News International. Both assert that—despite your own denial—you were made aware of a crucial email that made plain that phone-hacking was widespread at The News of the World—rather than restricted to a single rogue reporter.  How do you account for their very different memories?

The critical question. It’s their word against his—and it’s two to one. The executives—Colin Myler, former editor of The News of the World, and Tom Crone, once the paper’s senior legal adviser—have no obvious reason to lie beyond a sense of injustice.

Your own former law firm, Harbottle & Lewis, has claimed that parts of your earlier evidence were “self-serving,” “hard to credit,” “inaccurate,” and “misleading.” Are you saying that they are wrong?

Ouch. Lawyers make tricky enemies, and Harbottle & Lewis are furious at the suggestion that they prepared a whitewash report on hacking for News International.

Your own former law firm, Harbottle & Lewis, has claimed that parts of your earlier evidence were “self-serving,” “hard to credit,” “inaccurate,” and “misleading.”

According to newly disclosed documents, in 2008 a senior lawyer consulted by News International gave his opinion in writing that “there is a powerful case that there is—or was—a culture of illegal information access” at The News of the World. Did you read his report?

Ouch again. The letter from Michael Silverleaf QC appears to confirm the committee’s darkest suspicions. Surely Murdoch would have read the report his own company commissioned.