James Murdoch Denies “Mafia Boss” Comparison, Blames Former Editor Over Phone Hacking

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News International chairman James Murdoch gives evidence to members of the British parliament over the on-going News of the World phone-hacking scandal in London on November 10, 2011. (Photo: AFP / Getty Images)

This morning, as James Murdoch faced bruising questions from parliamentarians investigating phone hacking at News International, he had no choice but to stare at a garish red painting. Before him hung a twenty-foot canvas splattered with deep reds and maroons; behind him, an equally brash work of art in crimson and scarlet. For a man fighting to salvage his personal credibility and the respect of his family’s media empire, the symbolism could have been a bit daunting: whether he looked forward or back, it seemed like blood was already on the wall.

Murdoch, however, remained calm—if somewhat combative—throughout the 2.5-hour interrogation. He began with an apology, saying that he’s had a lot of time to reflect on  revelations of widespread hacking at News of the World—and the closure of the tabloid that followed—since he first gave testimony in July. “I think we’re all humbled by it, and trying to improve the business, improve the structures and leadership across all of the operating companies to make sure that these things do not happen again,” he said. “They are things that I am very sorry about.”

Pleasantries out of the way, he went on to deny that he had previously misled MPs about the extent of his knowledge of phone hacking taking place. During his July testimony, he claimed to be in the dark that hacking extended beyond one rogue reporter. But in September, 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, also said that the e-mail had been a topic of conversation. Based on those statements, the committee decided to recall Murdoch to the inquiry.

This morning Murdoch, 38, did change one aspect of his story: he admitted that he had been made aware of the e-mail. However, he claims that the damning nature of the message was not fully revealed to him. “I was given a narrower set of facts than I would have liked,” he said, adding that it was Myler’s job to make him aware of “evidence and suspicion of widespread criminality.” He went on to accuse Crone and Myler of misleading the inquiry. “Certainly in the evidence they gave to you in 2011 in regard to my own knowledge, I believe it was inconsistent and not right, and I dispute it vigorously.”

In the aftermath of the attempted foam attack on Rupert Murdoch, security was predictably tight at today’s hearing. Members of the public were asked to throw away food and beverage as they entered the building, and had to store all bags in a cloakroom despite undergoing two body searches and a metal detector. Police escorted groups to the restroom before the session started. Outside the building, a dozen police stood near a growing mob of paparazzi, and a handful protestors held signs that showed Rupert and James Murdoch engulfed by flames.

Even without Johnny Marbles and pie defender Wendi Deng, today’s session did have its own flare-ups. Tom Watson, the deputy chair of the Labour Party, asked Murdoch if he was familiar with the terms “Mafia” and “omerta”—the code of silence which, as Watson described, allows them “to pursue their group’s business objectives with no regard for the law, using intimidation, corruption and general criminality.” As fellow committee members and journalists furrowed their brows in unison, Watson crossed the line of melodrama. “You must be the first Mafia boss in history who didn’t know he was running a criminal enterprise,” he said. Murdoch—visibly pained—squirmed for the first time in the hearing. “Mr. Watson. Please. I don’t think that’s appropriate.”

Given recent events, however, Murdoch might want to stay away from invoking notions of propriety. Last Friday authorities investigating corrupt payments between journalists and police officers arrested Jamie Pyatt, a reporter at the Sun. That arrest involves the News International tabloid in the ongoing scandal for the first time. On Nov. 8—just two days before Murdoch’s latest testimony—allegations emerged that News of the World had hired private investigators to spy on the lawyers representing phone hacking victims—and in some instances their children—in an attempt to discredit them. The BBC later claimed that the tabloid had commissioned covert surveillance of public figures and their relatives “on an industrial scale.” Targets included Prince William and the parents of Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe, among others. And, in a revelation that might explain Watson’s Mafia outburst this morning, a lawyer claims to have seen documents showing Watson was targeted, too.

But all of that noise and all of those fresh allegations are for another committee at another time. Speaking to reporters after this morning’s hearing, committee chairman John Whittingdale made it clear the inquiry has one clear challenge before it: to weigh the credibility of Murdoch against that of Crone and Myler. “It is plain that of the two accounts we’ve heard, one of them cannot be true,” he said. Depending on his assessment, Murdoch may not be the only one seeing red.

William Lee Adams is a staff writer at the London bureau of TIME. Find him on Twitter at @willyleeadams or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.