Does James Murdoch protest too much?
The younger Murdoch, onetime heir to his father Rupert’s News Corp. throne, drew headlines earlier this month when he stepped down as head of the conglomerate’s scandal-ridden U.K. arm, News International, where he oversaw his father’s British newspaper empire—including the Sun, the best-selling tabloid currently beset by a police investigation into payment of public officials and News of the World, which was shuttered this summer at the height of the phone hacking affair.
But amid the wash of media ink on James’ shamefaced departure, seasoned Murdoch watchers pointed out that the News International post was relatively small fry for the heir—as media analyst and longtime Murdoch expert Claire Enders noted to The Daily Beast at the time, James was likely eager to distance himself from the company’s sullied tabloid brand. Unlike his father, who harbors a legendary love for the printed word, the younger Murdoch made his career in satellite TV—and it was his post at the helm of one of News Corporation’s most prestigious television properties, the London-based BSkyB, that was believed to be his prime concern.
Murdoch’s desire to retain that post is thought to be among the motivating factors for an unsolicited seven-page missive that he sent to British Parliamentarians at the start of the week. It is addressed to the chairman of the parliamentary committee on culture, media and sport—the body, formerly known as a posting for MPs to score free tickets to theater and sporting events, that has morphed—under the initiative of members led by the crusading MP Tom Watson—into a bloodhound on the Murdochs and their phone-hacking trail. It was before this same committee that Rupert and James made their infamous appearance last summer to defend their handling of the crisis—with Rupert getting a shaving-cream pie in the face, and James insisting vehemently that, until only recently, the scale of the problem had been carefully kept from his sight. Now, the committee is deliberating on the conclusions of a highly anticipated report that experts believe could spell serious trouble for James Murdoch, possibly even shaking him in his BSkyB seat.
Was the letter from James a preemptive strike?
“His letter was known to the press before the committee members received it,” lamented Watson, the MP, via Twitter last night.
In the letter, James Murdoch reiterated his comments from this summer—which, despite mounting suspicion to the contrary, remain his main defense: that he was not aware of the scope of the problem taking place under his watch, or involved in trying to shield it from view. “It has been suggested that my decision to resign my role at News International reflected past knowledge of voicemail interception or of other alleged criminal wrongdoing at News International. This is untrue,” Murdoch wrote. “I take my share of responsibility for not uncovering wrongdoing earlier. However, I have not misled Parliament. I did not know about, nor did I try to hide, wrongdoing. I do not believe the evidence before you supports any other conclusion.”
Just what James knew—and when—has become a pivotal point of contention. At issue is a simple question, pegged to a specific point in time: did James know about the problem in 2008 when he authorized a then-unprecedented £725,000 settlement to a victim of phone hacking? If he believed at the time—as both he and the company maintained until recently—that phone hacking was confined to a single rogue reporter, then the settlement is just a thing of the past. But if he were aware of the scope of the problem at the time, then his testimony to Parliament would have been deliberately misleading, as critics accused last summer.
Soon after James’ testimony, former News Corp. executives insisted that they had informed him before the settlement that phone hacking was widespread. Later, emails surfaced suggesting that News Corp. executives knew of the extent of phone hacking and had clued James in as well. It has even been it revealed that James was forwarded a chain of emails in the build-up to the settlement—later deleted from his account by an IT worker—that suggested hacking went beyond a single rogue reporter, as the company had previously claimed. James now claims he never read the entire email chain.
James details his side of the email saga in the letter to Parliament, reiterating that he was “confident” he didn’t read the full email chain in question, as he received the message on a Saturday afternoon, “when I was likely alone with my two young children.” James goes on to assert that the emails have since been taken out of context by a voracious press. “In the context of the surrounding evidence, it is clear to me that the email chain has been widely misreported and misunderstood, as it was not, in any way, a warning … that voicemail interception was widespread.” The phrases in the email in question—“unfortunately it is as bad as we feared”; “nightmare scenario”—refer to the amount needed to settle the lawsuit, not the extent of the hacking problem itself, Murdoch contends.
“I did not know about, nor did I try to hide, wrongdoing,” Murdoch writes.
The committee’s report is expected after Easter. Meanwhile, legal problems for News International continue to mount. Rebekah Brooks, the former News International chief executive, was arrested, along with her husband, on Monday under suspicion of attempting to pervert the course of justice—her third arrest in the saga so far. And Neville Thurlbeck, News of the World’s former chief reporter, was arrested yesterday for witness intimidation after posting the home address of an executive leading News Corporation’s internal investigation—which is wildly unpopular among journalists in the company—in a blog post.