Murdochs backtrack over evidence to British MPs

14th July 2011, Comments 0 comments

Media magnate Rupert Murdoch and his son James backed down in the face of threats of jail from British lawmakers Thursday and agreed to testify to a parliamentary committee on the phone-hacking scandal.

In another dramatic day in the saga that has killed off the News of the World tabloid and wrecked Murdoch's takeover bid for pay-TV giant BSkyB, the Murdochs reversed their earlier refusal to give evidence to MPs on Tuesday.

Police also arrested a former journalist at the News of the World which Murdoch shut down on Sunday, but in a further shock they admitted that Scotland Yard itself had previously paid him as advisor.

The Murdochs' climbdown came only five hours after parliament's media select committee formally summoned them to attend, having received letters from the pair saying they were "unable" to attend but giving no reasons.

That left Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of Murdoch's British newspaper arm and a former editor of the News of the World from 2000-2003, to appear by herself before the committee.

But a spokeswoman for Murdoch's News Corp. later said: "News Corp. can confirm that we are in the process of writing to the select committee with the intention that James Murdoch and Rupert Murdoch will both attend on Tuesday."

Committee chairman John Whittingdale had said that if the Murdochs did not answer the summons then the matter would be dealt with by the House of Commons, which can then order the person to attend.

"If that is not obeyed then it becomes a matter of contempt of parliament and there are penalties," he said, adding: "I understand that it can include imprisonment."

For Brooks, herself a former News of the World editor, it promises to be a tough session.

At her last committee appearance in 2003 she admitted: "We have paid the police for information in the past", though she later said she was referring to the industry in general.

The extent of those payments is part of a Scotland Yard inquiry which is also dealing with the voicemail hacking.

Australian-born Murdoch has been in London in crisis mode since Sunday, the day the 168-year-old News of the World published its last ever edition.

The row had rumbled on for months but exploded last week after it emerged that it had targeted the messages of Milly Dowler, a murdered 13-year-old girl, and of the families of the veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

On Wednesday, his News Corp. announced it was dropping its bid for full control of BSkyB, whose portfolio includes live English Premier League football and blockbuster films and has 10 million household subscribers.

Murdoch overruled his son and likely heir James in the decision to back out of the BSkyB deal, after James had pressed for seeking regulatory approval of the deal, the New York Times reported Thursday.

In London, police arrested Neil Wallis, 60, the former executive editor and deputy editor of the News of the World, who left the paper in 2009. Wallis is the ninth person to be arrested since the inquiry was reopened in January.

Wallis was deputy editor at the 168-year-old title from 2003 to 2007 under editor Andy Coulson. Coulson quit the paper in 2007 after its royal reporter and a private investigator were jailed for hacking mobile phone voicemails.

Coulson, who went on to become Prime Minister David Cameron's media chief before quitting that job in January, was arrested on Friday in connection with the scandal and later bailed.

But Scotland Yard later confirmed that a media company owned by Wallis "was appointed to provide strategic communication advice and support to the MPS (Metropolitan Police Service)".

It said the contract, which ran from October 2009 to September 2010, included advice on speech writing and public relations, while the police force's deputy director of public affairs was on sick leave.

Separately British detectives have told the cousin of Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian man shot dead by police in London in 2005 after being mistaken for a suicide bomber, he may been targeted by the News of the World, campaigners said.

In Australia, the birthplace of Murdoch's global empire, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said on Thursday she would be open to an inquiry into media regulation and ownership after the "disgusting" scandal engulfing News Corp.

In Washington, Democratic senators Jay Rockefeller and Barbara Boxer urged US Attorney General Eric Holder and the Wall Street watchdog Securities and Exchange Commission to launch investigations into the scandal.

© 2011 AFP

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