James Murdoch Admits News Corp. Put British MPs Under Covert Surveillance
UPDATED: The News Corp deputy COO “apologized unreservedly” during his Thursday meeting with Parliament's Culture, Media and Sport committee.
LONDON - James Murdoch has admitted that members of the Culture, Media and Sport committee investigating phone hacking were put under covert surveillance by News International.
Speaking towards the end of a two-and-a half hour grilling by the Parliamentary committee, Murdoch admitted that he knew of instances where members including Tom Watson MP had been put under observation during the period of an earlier committee investigation in 2009, and he said that he “apologized unreservedly” for the intrusion.
Earlier, Louise Mensch had asked James Murdoch if he was aware that MPs on the committee believed they had all been put under surveillance.
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Watson has been one of the most pugnacious critics of the Murdoch family and News Corporation over the phone-hacking scandal, leading the charge on behalf of the Parliamentary committee. Earlier in the session he accused James Murdoch of being “a mafia boss,” in a tense confrontation between the two.
“I am aware of the case of surveilling Mr. Watson and again, under the circumstances I apologize unreservedly,” James Murdoch said towards the end of the session. “It is not something I would condone, it is not something I had knowledge of. It’s important to say that certain surveillance of prominent figures is acceptable in investigative journalism, but in this case it is absolutely unacceptable.”
Murdoch said that the recent surveillance into lawyers representing phone-hacking victims had been ordered by former News of The World legal manager Tom Crone and another unnamed News International executive who could not be identified for legal reasons.
But he insisted he had not known that the surveillance had taken place until the past few weeks.
“I want to say for the record it is appalling, it is shocking it is something I would never condone and is something the company should never condone.”
While his evidence session lacked the show-stopping sight of Wendi Deng swooping to slap down a pie-thrower attacking her husband, James Murdoch’s second appearance at the House of Commons Select Committee did not lack for drama. And the jury is still out on whether his professional reputation survived what amounted to major a battering.
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Looking tense, and at times flushed, James Murdoch denied a series of accusations of executive incompetence and negligence, insisting that his actions were “reasonable” given the amount of information he had been given. He was even forced to appeal – without much success - to the committee chairman when Tom Watson goaded him by saying “Mr. Murdoch, you must be the only mafia boss who doesn’t know he is running a criminal organization.”
He struggled to give convincing answers to the question of how News International executives were able to agree million dollar plus settlements with phone-hacking plaintiffs including Gordon Taylor, head of the Professional Footballer’s Association and celebrity agent Max Clifford, without more supervision from him. Murdoch had described the pay-offs as “a tiny part” of the businesses he oversaw.
“I can’t believe that your organization has been so successful by being so cavalier with money,” said former Asda executive Philip Davies MP,
Murdoch was also unable to answer why he had had not worked out that phone-hacking must have gone further than the company’s jailed ex-royal reporter when the pay-offs authorized were not to people involved with the royal reporter’s beat.
“Why were you paying out football officials if you thought only the royal reporter was hacking?” asked Paul Farrelly.
Over and over, James Murdoch returned to his key line of defense to say that saying he had not been given the right or complete information by former News of The World editor Colin Myler and legal manager Tom Crone, even though that he expected the situation to be managed by them.
Asked why he did not investigate the legal opinion himself, James Murdoch said that given the executives involvement “It did not occur to me.”
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“In the context of the overall European business, the news international business and the businesses I was running, this was something that was the responsibility of the editor and the legal manager of News Group newspapers. They had come to me with strong advice, they did describe sufficient information to get the authorization and it was left to them to manage the issue.”
However, in a statement from Tom Crone issued late Thursday said he stood by his testimony. "It is regrettable, but I can perfectly understand why James Murdoch felt the need to discredit Colin Myler and myself. The simple truth is that he was told by us in 2008 about the damning email and what it meant in terms of the wider News of The World involvement."
Colin Myler issued a separate statement saying he stood by his original testimony in which he also claimed that James Murdoch was given the information that more than one reporter was guilty of phone-hacking.
Perhaps the most telling interlude in the evidence session came when Murdoch was briefly questioned by committee chairman, John Whittingdale, about News International’s response to the committee’s earlier report in 2009 on the circumstances that had lead to the arrest and imprisonment of royal reporter Clive Goodman.
At the time, the committee published a report saying it was “inconceivable” that only one person was involved in hacking at News International, and said News International's management were guilty of “collective amnesia.”
In a pointed remark from the usually quiet chairman, Whittingdale pointed out the hubris in the stance News International had taken over the hacking allegations it has for years denied.
“The result of that was that your papers described this committee and members of this committee as ‘a disgrace to parliament.’ Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate, when a Parliamentary Committee came to that conclusion, to have conducted another internal inquiry, rather than rubbishing the committee?”