James Murdoch Grilled Over Phone-Hacking and Political Ties

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A video grab from inside the Leveson Inquiry shows former News International executive chairman James Murdoch giving evidence into press standards at the High Court in London on April 24, 2012.

James Murdoch endured an exhaustive day of testimony at an inquiry into British media ethics and defended his position as the head of News International, the U.K. arm of News Corporation. The appearance of Murdoch, the heir apparent to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., was the dramatic climax of the inquiry overseen by Lord Justice Brian Leveson, spurred by the exposure of widespread phone hacking that took place at News International’s now shuttered News of the World. While the inquiry’s initial questions, led by lawyer Robert Jay QC, aimed to determine when it was that Murdoch learned of the phone hacking occurring under his watch, Murdoch insisted that he had thought the practice was “a thing of the past” by the time he took control in 2007 and even then had believed hacking was the work of a single reporter.

However, as the events of the last year have shown, that was clearly not the case: it was revealed that reporters at NotW hacked into hundreds of phones, including that of Milly Dowler, a teenage girl who was murdered in 2002 and whose subsequent implication in the News International hacking scandal enraged the British public. During Tuesday’s interrogation, Jay put forward two possible scenarios to Murdoch: either he knew that hacking had been widespread and was part of a cover-up or he was unaware and an ineffectual leader of the company. Murdoch testified to a third option, saying that his subordinate staff, specifically the tabloid’s then-editor Colin Myler and the company’s former lawyer Tom Crone, had kept information from him.

This wasn’t exactly revelatory a declaration, as Murdoch has said as much in the past, though his former colleagues have denied that their boss was in the dark. As William Lee Adams wrote earlier this month, when Murdoch appeared before the government inquiry into NotW phone hacking he “denied knowing that hacking extended beyond one rogue reporter. In September, though, former NotW attorney Tom Crone contradicted Murdoch’s testimony, telling the panel he was ‘certain’ he had informed Murdoch of an e-mail indicating that phone hacking was more widespread. Colin Myler, the former editor of the NotW, backed Crone up.”

When he reiterated his defense before Leveson, the judge pressed him on why his staff would withhold such information. Murdoch indicated that they wanted to steer clear of how he’d respond. “I would say: ‘Cut out the cancer,’ and there was some desire to not do that,” said Murdoch.

While much of his testimony over phone hacking was almost frustratingly pat, Murdoch testimony did include a few potential bombshells regarding News Corporation’s attempt to take over British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB), of which they currently own 39.1 percent, and the Murdochs’ links to politicians.

The multi-billion dollar attempt to take full control of the satellite company was halted by the hacking scandal, and the ensuing scrutiny of Murdoch led him to step down as the chairman earlier this month “to avoid being a lightning rod.” However, back when the lucrative take-over was still on the table, Murdoch met with then-opposition leader David Cameron on numerous occasions and informed him that another of News International’s publications, the Sun, would be endorsing him in the upcoming election. Cameron’s party went on to win that election and Murdoch’s testimony to Leveson revealed a cozy relationship between News Corp and the new Conservative government. Murdoch reported that he briefly spoke with newly elected Prime Minister about the BSkyB bid at a Christmas party of former-News Corp executive Rebekah Brooks. In the past, Cameron has denied speaking with Murdoch about the bid, a statement that could now inspire further scrutiny into Cameron’s ties to News International. Murdoch also testified that he was “friendly” with the British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne.

And a series of emails submitted to the inquiry by Rupert Murdoch revealed that the Conservative MP and Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, who was in charge of overseeing the News Corp take-over bid of BSkyB, seemed to be an enthusiastic champion of the Murdochs and had met with James numerous times. Labour party leader Ed Milliband has since called for Hunt to resign, telling the BBC, “Jeremy Hunt should have been standing up for the interests of the British people. In fact it now turns out he was standing up for the interests of the Murdochs.”

When Jay argued that News International’s support of the Conservatives could have been a shrewd attempt to sway favor for the highly lucrative take-over, Murdoch flat-out denied the charge.

Murdoch said he didn’t do “business that way” and there was “absolutely not a quid pro quo for that support.” It’s an answer that will satisfy few.

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