Murdoch hit by foam pie at 'humbling' British hearing

20th July 2011, Comments 0 comments

A protester attacked Rupert Murdoch with a foam pie Tuesday as the media mogul told British lawmakers he was not to blame for the phone-hacking scandal, in a bizarre twist to what he called the "most humble day of my life".

The 80-year-old News Corporation chief's Chinese-born wife Wendi Deng leaped up and slapped the assailant, who was dragged off by police, before the parliamentary committee resumed quizzing Murdoch and his son James.

The attack came near the end of more than two hours of questioning during which the Australian-born Murdoch denied ultimate responsibility for the scandal which forced him to shut the News of the World newspaper.

Appearing frail and at times stumbling to a halt in his testimony, he did however apologise to the victims, saying at the outset: "I would just like to say one sentence. This is the most humble day of my life."

The scandal has rocked Murdoch's global empire, forced two of Britain's top police chiefs to resign and even placed Prime Minister David Cameron under pressure.

Murdoch said it was "not an excuse" but that with a company of 53,000 staff he could not be blamed for failing to uncover the scandal.

Asked whether "ultimately you are responsible for this whole fiasco?", Murdoch tersely replied: "No". When pressed over who he blamed, Murdoch said: "The people that I trusted to run it and then maybe the people they trusted."

But he said he was "absolutely shocked, appalled and ashamed when I heard about the Milly Dowler case two weeks ago," referring to a murdered teenager whose phone was allegedly hacked by the News of the World.

Murdoch also said there was "no evidence at all" the newspaper targeted 9/11 victims, a claim that has sparked an FBI investigation in the United States.

Then around two hours into the hearing, a man in a checked shirt jumped up and attacked Murdoch with a plate covered with foam. The hearing was suspended for 10 minutes and police led off the attacker.

The Guardian newspaper and Sky News named him as a comedian called Jonnie Marbles. In a Twitter message shortly before the incident, he said: "It is a far better thing that I do now than I have ever done before #splat."

Scotland Yard later said that a 26-year-old man was arrested "on suspicion of assault after an incident during a public meeting", and he remains in custody.

Media later reported his full name is Jonathan May-Bowles and a member of the British anarchist group UK Uncut, but the collective later said the action was not committed on their behalf.

Britain's opposition Labour admitted the activist was a party member but had been suspended over his "despicable behaviour."

During the hearing James Murdoch, the chairman of the British newspaper operation News International, several times tried but failed to step in when his father faltered on a question.

"I would like to say just how sorry I am and how sorry we are to particularly the victims of illegal voice mail interceptions and to their families," the 38-year-old Murdoch said.

He admitted however that News International had paid the legal fees of Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator jailed in 2007 when the hacking at the paper was first exposed.

Rebekah Brooks, who resigned as News International chief executive on Friday and edited the paper when Dowler's messages were allegedly hacked, also testified to the committee.

She said the hacking of Dowler's phone was "pretty horrific and abhorrent" but insisted she had no knowledge it had happened until papers obtained from police by lawyers for actress Sienna Miller, another hacking victim, emerged in 2010.

Brooks, 43, was arrested and bailed on Sunday on suspicion of hacking and bribing police.

Meanwhile Cameron, who returned early from a trip to Africa to address parliament on Wednesday, faced more pressure over his own links to the Murdoch empire.

His Conservative party admitted that his former media chief Andy Coulson, himself an ex-News of the World editor, had received "informal advice" before elections last year from Neil Wallis, a key suspect in the hacking row.

Wallis was Coulson's deputy at the tabloid. Both men have been arrested for suspected hacking, and Cameron has faced opposition calls to apologise for hiring Coulson, who left Downing Street in January.

"This is a big problem but we are a big country," Cameron said after meeting Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan in Lagos Tuesday.

Wallis, meanwhile, is also at the heart of allegations that forced Scotland Yard chief Paul Stephenson, Britain's most senior police officer, and anti-terror chief John Yates to resign within the space of 24 hours.

Stephenson quit after it emerged the force had paid Wallis for public relations work while the paper was under investigation, and also took a free break at a spa where Wallis was a consultant. He denies all wrongdoing.

Yates, who refused in 2009 to reopen an initial botched investigation into hacking, is accused of getting Wallis's daughter a job at the force.

In a tragic twist, British police announced after a post-mortem that Monday's death of Sean Hoare, a whistleblower and former reporter at the News of the World who first implicated Coulson in the scandal was "not suspicious" and involved no third party.

© 2011 AFP

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