Murdochs Face U.K. Grilling Over Tabloid Scandal

July 19, 2011

NPR Staff and Wires

Rupert Murdoch, whose media empire is at the heart of a corruption and phone hacking scandal that has touched the highest levels of British society, was mobbed by photographers on Tuesday as he arrived at Parliament ahead of tough questioning from lawmakers.

Murdoch, his son James — News Corp's heir apparent — and the media mogul's former U.K. newspaper chief Rebekah Brooks as well as top all faced parliamentary grilling over the allegations that reporters from the News of the World tabloid hacked into the phones of celebrities and crime victims looking for scoops.

At a separate hearing, Britain's most senior police officer revealed that 10 of the 45 press officers in his department used to work for News International, but he denied there are any improper links between the force and Rupert Murdoch's media empire.

"I understand that there are 10 members of the [Department of Public Affairs] staff who have worked in News International in the past, in some cases journalists, in some cases undertaking work experience with the organization," said Sir Paul Stephenson, the head of Scotland Yard.

Stephenson denied wrongdoing, or knowing the newspaper was engaged in phone hacking — but acknowledged that in retrospect he was embarrassed the force had hired a former News of the World editor as a PR consultant.

After being asked about his relationship with Neil Wallis, a former executive editor who was arrested last week, Stephenson said he had "no reason to connect Wallis with phone hacking" when he was hired for the part-time job in 2009.

Stephenson announced his resignation on Sunday but has yet to leave the post. His deputy, John Yates, said Monday that he would step down.

Yates, who testified separately from Stephenson, said: "I very confidently predict, a very small number of police officers will go to prison for corruption," but added that should not "taint" the whole department.

Yates also maintained that he personally had done nothing wrong and said that with the benefit of hindsight he would have re-opened the inquiry into electronic eavesdropping of voicemail messages.

The ever-widening scandal has engulfed Murdoch's News Corporation, which spans multiple continents and controls such media powerhouses as U.S.-based Fox TV network, 20th Century Fox film studio and The Wall Street Journal as well as The Times of London, The Australian and British Sky Broadcasting. It has also tainted London's prestigious Scotland Yard and British Prime Minister David Cameron, who cut short a visit to Africa and was expected to return to Britain for an emergency session Wednesday of Parliament on the scandal.

Murdoch shut down the lucrative News of the World last week after 169 years in print in an apparent attempt at damage control.

Photographers and spectators swarmed Murdoch's Range Rover as it pulled up to Portcullis House, the building beside Parliament where Tuesday's hearing will be held. Members of the public and journalists had lined up hours ahead of time in hope of a spot in the small committee room, which holds about 50 people. More will be able to watch in an overspill room, and Britain's TV news channels are anticipating high ratings for the appearance.

"The [parliamentary] committee is going to want to know how much they knew about phone hacking at the now-closed News of the World, NPR's Philip Reeves reported from London.

Specifically, Reeves said, lawmakers will want to know why the British arm of Murdoch's News Corporation insisted for so long "that this practice was limited to just two people when it later emerged that thousands of voice mails may have been hacked into."

The weekend arrest of Brooks — an editor of News of the World when the hacking took place — on suspicion of intercepting communications and corruption could limit what she can and cannot say. She was expected to appear before a separate committee.

"She's going to be asked how much she knew about what went on," at the paper and "probably also she will be asked whether bribes were paid to the police," Reeves said.

Brooks' lawyer has said she has committed no crime.

In a further twist, a former News of the World reporter Sean Hoare who helped blow the whistle on the hacking scandal was found dead Monday in his home. Police said the death was "unexplained" but is not being treated as suspicious. A post-mortem was being conducted Tuesday. Hoare was in his late forties.

So far, the scandal has claimed numerous scalps. Besides Brooks, and London's two top police officers, Wall Street Journal publisher Les Hinton, who was head of the British wing of News Corporation at the time of the hacking scandal, also quit.

In New York, News Corp. appointed commercial lawyer Anthony Grabiner to run its Management and Standards Committee, which will deal with the scandal. But News Corp. board member Thomas Perkins told The Associated Press that the 80-year-old Murdoch has the full support of the company's board of directors, and it was not considering elevating Chief Operating Officer Chase Carey to replace Murdoch as CEO of News Corp.

Meanwhile, Internet hackers took aim at Murdoch late Monday, defacing the sites of his other U.K. tabloid, The Sun, and shutting down website of The Times of London. Visitors to The Sun website were redirected to a page featuring a story saying Murdoch's dead body had been found in his garden.

With reporting from NPR's Philip Reeves and Larry Miller in London. Material from The Associated Press was used in this story.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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