Murdoch’s Bow to Pressure; Will Attend UK Parliament’s Investigation

By and | July 14, 2011

Rupert Murdoch on Thursday caved in to pressure from Britain’s parliament to answer questions over alleged crimes at one of his newspapers, setting up a showdown with lawmakers keen to break the media mogul’s grip on politics.

British police arrested a ninth suspect, named by media as a former deputy editor of Murdoch’s News of the World, adding weight to a government call for the media regulator to decide whether his business is fit to run British television stations.

Murdoch, 80, has already been forced to close the News of the World and back down on his biggest acquisition plan yet, the buyout of British pay TV operator BSkyB , due to an outcry over allegations reporters accessed private phone messages.

He and his son James, heir apparent to his News Corp empire, initially said they would not face questions from parliament’s media committee over phone hacking, but they then reversed their decision after Prime Minister David Cameron said they should attend.

Rebekah Brooks, who runs Murdoch’s British newspaper arm, News International, had agreed to face a grilling from the committee. Brooks was a friend of Cameron, who echoed calls for her to go.

Brooks, who edited the News of the World at the time of one of the most serious alleged incidents, said the police inquiry might restrict what she could say.

Speculation was growing at News International’s East London headquarters that the company might be reconsidering their position on Brooks after resisting pressure for her to quit, a source familiar with the situation said.

Murdoch, a U.S. citizen, said he would give evidence to a public inquiry announced by Cameron after questions were raised over the role of some police officers in the scandal and over the relations between British politicians and media owners.

The session is certain to be hostile. During a heated debate on the hacking scandal on Wednesday, Dennis Skinner, a veteran left-wing Labour member of parliament, described Murdoch as “this cancer on the body politic.” Murdoch and other senior executives have denied any knowledge of the alleged practices.

The allegations of phone hacking, which reached a peak as Murdoch’s British bid came up for approval this month, are now reverberating around the world.

Some U.S. lawmakers called for an investigation to see if the billionaire’s News Corp had broken American laws while in Australia, where Murdoch was born, the prime minister said her government may review media laws.

Murdoch, who owns 39 percent of British pay TV operator BSkyB, withdrew his $12 billion bid to take over the rest of it on Wednesday after British politicians united in a call for him to pull out of the deal.

Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg noted media regulator Ofcom was already looking into whether News Corp should be allowed to maintain its existing stake in BSkyB.

“Clearly there are big questions about the fitness and properness of News International and that is exactly why Ofcom are now looking at it,” Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrat coalition partners, told BBC Radio 4. “The thing that I think isn’t quite clear to me at least is exactly how fit and proper tests are applied,” he added.

The catalysts for public disgust over the hacking allegations were reports a News Corp newspaper had hacked into the voice mails of murder victims.

“To see some of the things that have been done to intrude on people’s privacy, particularly in moments of grief and stress in the family lives, I’ve truly been disgusted to see it,” Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard told Australia’s National Press Club.

“I anticipate that we will have a discussion amongst parliamentarians about this, about the best review and way of dealing with all of this,” she said.

U.S.-based News Corp has been rocked by a series of scandals alleging journalists and hired investigators working for its flagship News of the World tabloid hacked into the voice mails of thousands of people, from victims of notorious crimes to families of soldiers killed in the war in Afghanistan.

The allegations, which include bribing police officers for information, galvanized British lawmakers across party lines to oppose a man long used to being courted by the political elite.

Police arrested former News of the World deputy editor Neil Wallis on Thursday, the ninth person held since the inquiry was revived earlier this year.

In a statement, the Metropolitan Police said it had hired Wallis as a consultant from October 2009 until September 2010, an embarrassment for a force facing questions about its links to tabloid reporters.

The crisis has also tarnished Cameron, who faces questions about why he appointed a former News of the World editor as his communications chief.

Clegg distanced himself from the decision on Thursday. “We did discuss it. Of course we discussed it,” he said, “but at the end of the day I make my appointments to my own office and David Cameron makes his own appointments.”

Politicians in the United States are taking notice, too. Three prominent U.S. lawmakers called on federal officials to investigate whether News Corp broke any American laws, meaning Murdoch could be battling investigations on both sides of the Atlantic.

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