Phone hacking: Rupert Murdoch claims 'minor mistakes' have been made
Published 15/07/2011 | 09:06
Rupert Murdoch has insisted that News Corporation has handled the hacking crisis well, saying just "minor mistakes" had been made.
A defiant Mr Murdoch has said he will challenge the ''total lies'' issued about his News Corporation media empire in the phone hacking scandal when he appears before British MPs next week.
The 80-year-old media mogul earlier bowed to pressure and agreed to give evidence to the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee on Tuesday, having previously said he was unavailable to attend.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, which is owned by News Corp, he said he wanted to address ''some of the things that have been said in Parliament, some of which are total lies''.
He added: ''We think it's important to absolutely establish our integrity in the eyes of the public... I felt that it's best just to be as transparent as possible.''
Despite the massive outcry over the allegations centring on the now defunct News of the World, Mr Murdoch insisted News Corp had handled the crisis ''extremely well in every possible way'' making just ''minor mistakes''.
He said that the company would now establish an independent committee, headed by a ''distinguished non-employee'' to investigate all charges of improper conduct.
However the pressure intensified with the disclosure that the FBI has opened in inquiry into claims that News Corp journalists sought to hack the phones of the victims of the 9/11 terror attacks.
Mr Murdoch and his son, James, last night finally acceded to demands to appear before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee after MPs issued summonses ordering them to appear.
The Leader of the House of Commons, Sir George Young warned that - in theory at least - they could be fined or even imprisoned if they refused.
In his interview with The Wall Street Journal, Mr Murdoch also hit back at Gordon Brown over claims that the News International papers, including the Sunday Times had illegally obtained information about him and his family.
He said the former prime minister ''got it entirely wrong'' adding that ''the Browns were always friends of ours'' until The Sun withdrew its support for Labour before the last election.
He also dismissed claims that News Corp was considering selling or separating off its newspaper assets as ''pure and total rubbish''.
Asked if he was aggravated by all the negative publicity it had attracted in recent days, he said he was ''just getting annoyed''. He added: ''I'll get over it. I'm tired.''
Meanwhile Scotland Yard was also under pressure to explain how it came to employ a former News of the World journalist arrested in the phone-hacking investigation as a PR consultant.
Neil Wallis, 60, who was deputy editor under Andy Coulson's editorship, was detained in a dawn raid on his west London home and questioned for several hours at Hammersmith police station.
While he was being held the Yard was forced to admit that they had paid him £24,000 to work as a two-day-a-month public relations consultant. His contract was cancelled less than six months before the Operation Weeting investigation into phone hacking was launched.
Home Secretary Theresa May fired off a letter to Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson demanding an explanation.
Sir Paul was also summoned for what was described as a ''very frank discussion'' with London Mayor Boris Johnson lasting almost an hour and a half.
The commissioner will now give evidence to the Commons Home Affairs Committee - which is looking at the police investigation - on the same day as the Murdochs appear.
Several powerful congressmen had demanded an inquiry into the hacking claims, which had sparked a furious response from the families of those who lost their lives in the atrocity.
News Corp shares tumbled on the news, wiping about $1billion (£620 million) from the company’s value in less than an hour. The shares were down 3.1 per cent at $15.44.
The launch of an inquiry into alleged phone hacking in the US means the scandal has now officially moved beyond the UK for the first time into News Corp’s most valuable commercial market.
It opens up a potentially hugely damaging new front for Mr Murdoch following days of revelations which have already forced the closure of the News of the World, prompted the launch of multiple criminal and judicial inquiries and led to News Corp withdrawing its bid for BSkyB.
The FBI inquiry follows the intervention of Peter King, a New York congressman, who wrote directly to the Bureau demanding an inquiry into the 9/11 claims. Reports had suggested that the News of the World attempted to buy the phone records of victims of the 2001 bombings.
"We are aware of the allegations and are looking into it," said Peter Donald, an FBI spokesman in New York.
In his letter, Mr King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, had urged the FBI to look into claims that the News of the World tried to illegally access telephone records of 9/11 victims through bribes to US law enforcement officials and illegal wiretapping.
“The 9/11 families have suffered egregiously, but unfortunately they remain vulnerable against such unjustifiable parasitic strains. We can spare no effort or expense in continuing our support for them,’’ Mr King wrote in a letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller.
Jim Riches, a former deputy chief in the New York Fire Department whose 29-year-old fireman son was killed in the 9/11 attacks had also been among those calling for an investigation.
“Someone should look into it to see if their rights were violated – the family members I’ve talked to are appalled, they’re disgruntled, they have to relive the pain all over again,” he had said.
“I think they crossed the line. They’re trying to get messages from loved ones in the last moments of their lives. It’s horrible, and they should be held accountable. It’s despicable and unethical.”
Senator Barbara Boxer said that Mr Murdoch could be called before Senate committee over the claims and that his media licence could be removed depending on how the investigation develops.
"It's hard for me to understand how anybody could sanction what they reportedly did ... It takes my breath away," she said.
America is News Corp’s largest market and home to Mr Murdoch’s hugely successful Fox cable television network. The 80-year old billionaire has lived in New York since 1974, and just over a decade later became a US citizen, something that is required to own television stations in the country. Spearheaded by the pro-Republican Fox News Channel, News Corp’s overall cable television business generates about 60 per cent of the company’s profits.
The disclosure of the FBI’s involvement came after the head of America’s corporate regulator last night pledged to “carefully” consider requests from powerful senators to investigate Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers, including alleged violation of a law that forbids US firms from bribing foreign officials.
Mary Schapiro, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, said she would examine written demands by six Congressmen to launch a probe into News Corp, Mr Murdoch’s umbrella company which is based in New York.
They have asked the SEC to look at whether News Corp may have breached America’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA).
“We will look at it very carefully, as we do all Congressional correspondence.” Ms Schapiro said.
The US Department of Justice meanwhile, said it was also reviewing calls for an investigation into whether the "routine phone hacking committed by News of the World journalists" in Britain could have been inflicted on American citizens.
Media watchdogs and legal experts said it was likely that an investigation would be launched, given the scale of malpractice by Murdoch employees in Britain.
The current most likely avenue for prosecution is seen as the FCPA, which forbids US firms and their overseas subsidiaries - such as News International - from bribing foreign officials. There have been repeated claims that Mr Murdoch’s publications paid inducements to police officers and others.
“They could move pretty quickly,” said Homer Moyer, a lawyer at Washington firm Miller Chevalier and an expert on the legislation. “When there has been a quite specific allegation that has been made publicly and appeared in the press, it’s pretty hard for the SEC not to react to this. It will not go unnoticed.”
Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, added: “I think investigations are now inevitable. If a company has a tactic used in one paper why would that change from Britain to the US? It’s obvious we don’t know everything yet, which is why an investigation is needed.”
A key member of a House of Representatives oversight committee meanwhile joined calls for Congress to look into the allegations.
Representative Bruce Braley, an Iowa Democrat, said that “Congress has important oversight responsibilities in responding to the charges” and “getting to the bottom of this evolving scandal”.
He told CNN that News Corp may have engaged in “political espionage or personal espionage”.
Sen Frank Lautenberg, one of the senators to call for investigations into News Corp, said: “Any violation of these innocent victims must be taken seriously and acted upon immediately. With the allegations that News Corp bribed officials and hacked into voicemails overseas, it is essential that we investigate whether similar actions were taken here at home. The 9/11 victims and their families deserve answers.”
Mr Murdoch’s Fox News cable channel has long been accused of pro-Republican bias, but Mr Braley said that allegations of infringement of privacy were “bipartisan concern and not a partisan witch hunt”.
News Corp has not yet responded to the development that the FBI has launched an investigation.