James Murdoch Sticks to His Story at British Committee Hearing

James Murdoch insists he didn’t know the extent of phone hacking at his company, writes Nicholas Wapshott.

Rupert Murdoch, in New York watching the streaming video of his son James’s return to the House of Commons dock to explain discrepancies in his previous testimony about the widespread criminality of News Corp. employees, must have thought, as the Brits say, “the boy done good.”

James, 38, head of half of News Corp.’s sprawling empire and the unrivaled heir to his old man, cut an impressive figure. Dressed in a sober blue suit and respectfully sporting a red paper poppy in memory of the war dead, he answered each pointed question from the M.P.s, even the snarky and unfair ones, with clarity, intelligence, reason, and confidence. He appeared to have slipped the noose that had been so carefully placed around his neck.

He sidestepped the bear traps placed in his path, even when one lawmaker, Tom Watson, offered the soundbite, “You must be the first mafia boss in history who didn’t know he was running a criminal organization.” James’s line of reasoning was that most if not all the illegality took place before he had responsibility for the London employees who hacked into the voicemails of 5,000-plus unwitting victims, a list that includes not only Prince William and his new bride but a young girl who was murdered by a sex fiend on her way home from school. At every turn he emphasized that things were different now. The company has said sorry and is cleaning up its act.

Looking at the scene from afar, the argument is deep in the long grass, with cryptic references to “smoking gun” emails, long-forgotten celebrities and long-departed News Corp. executives, like the flame-haired Rebekah Brooks and her sometime cohort Les Hinton, who left the company in the summer bearing generous payoff checks. (Brooks is said to have pocketed $2.7 million to maintain her silence.)

The reason for James’s recall to the Commons, however, was because his account of events has been contradicted by two former senior News employees who have not yet been paid off: Colin Myler, a longstanding senior editor of the New York Post and the last editor of the now defunct News of the World, and Tom Crone, the veteran News Corp. lawyer who masterminded the steady stream of hefty cash-for-silence payments that keep the dirty little secrets of News Corp. safe from public scrutiny.

When it comes to their final report, the Commons committee investigating criminal behavior in Murdoch’s company must decide whether James Murdoch or the two former employees have lied. As the Commons is the highest court in the land, someone has committed perjury. It has come down to “he said, they said,” with James claiming he knew nothing, or not much, or hardly anything, or only a little of what was going on in his father’s newspaper business.

But the most pointed questions were not only about what James knew and when, but why as chairman and acting CEO he did not ask questions before paying huge sums to victims who, it has become clear, were not alone in being targeted by News Corp.’s posse of private eyes. Among those who were followed and tracked even after the scandal broke were attorneys representing victims suing News Corp. and every last member of the Commons committee investigating News Corp., as well as their wives and children, including a 14-year-old girl.

Little wonder, perhaps, that one member of Parliament found James to be “remarkably incurious” about what was going on under his nose, and another found it “incredible” that he never thought to ask how widespread the criminality was when an email he was told about spelled out that the scandal involved way more than a solitary snooper. Two hundred Scotland Yard detectives are currently unearthing who sanctioned the thousands of phone taps that provided the Murdoch papers with the endless supply of down-and-dirty scoops that lay out of reach of any honest reporter.

What the British police must determine is whether James lied to Parliament and whether he tried to cover up what even his own lawyers described as the “culture of illegal information access” he claims to know so little about. When asked about his current legal status, James smirked, “I haven’t been arrested and I’m not on bail.”

What the committee must now decide is whether, in their opinion, James has said and done enough to prevent them ruling that his failure to take responsibility for the scandal, his decision not to ask awkward questions at any point, and his lack of candor toward the committee will lead them to declare him a person unfit to be a director of a publicly traded company.

What the American authorities must figure out is whether News Corp.’s corrupt corporate culture led to phone and computer hacking and illegal surveillance of the company’s myriad enemies and tormentors here. And whether the criminality in London led American employees, including Rupert and James Murdoch, to break American laws.

The wheels of justice grind slowly, but what is clear is that there is such public anger on both sides of the Atlantic about how News Corp. has flouted common decency and trammeled the law that justice will, eventually, have to be done.

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Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics is published by W. W. Norton.