LONDON (Reuters) - Rupert Murdoch, unfazed by a foam pie attack in the British parliament, made a “humble” apology on Tuesday for crimes that have rocked his media empire and the government but refused to resign, saying the fault lay with staff who “betrayed” him.
Revelations of phone-hacking and payments to police by the News of the World have raised questions on his family’s grip on News Corporation, on the probity of the police and on the judgment of Prime Minister David Cameron, who returned early from Africa for an emergency parliament debate on Wednesday.
Calling it “the most humble day of my life,” Murdoch defended his record and that of his son, and said he could not know everything that his 53,000 employees did. James, 38, sat beside him before parliament’s media committee, interjecting on occasion as his 80-year-old father hesitated to give answers on what he knew, and when, of criminality at the Sunday tabloid.
But as three hours of earnest, at times testy, proceedings drew to a close with lawmakers pressing the Murdochs to explain payments to some of those involved in the decade-old affair, the hearing briefly turned to violence and farce when a man rose from the public seating of the packed committee room.
As he tried to hit the elder Murdoch with a paper plate of white foam, the Australian-born mogul’s 42-year-old wife Wendi Deng leapt in to slap the protester in a melee before he was seized by police. He was identified as a left-wing comedian.
After a short recess, Murdoch, now jacket-less, was told by one of the committee members he had shown “immense guts.” Another lawmaker, long one of his most bitter critics, later jokingly complimented his wife on her “very good left hook.”
That televised cameo, and the emotionally worded statements from the Murdochs on their personal remorse and will to clean up the mess at the News International newspaper unit, may temper some of the public and parliamentary fury aimed at a man who has been courted and feared by British leaders for decades.
“You couldn’t make this stuff up. It could have turned the whole situation around for them,” said Andrew Hawkins, chairman of polling company ComRes.
“The combination of his father’s age and the custard pie attack will have elicited a tremendous amount of sympathy. I suspect that in the weeks to come we will probably look back at this moment and think it was pivotal for them.”
A convincing performance could put the spotlight heavily on Cameron, who appointed a former editor of the News of the World as his spokesman, despite an early phone-hacking case in 2007.
Wednesday’s British newspaper front pages were dominated by pictures of the scuffle and more than one used “humble pie” in a headline. Commentators were divided between those who felt both Murdochs acquitted themselves well and others who felt the elder at any rate looked out of touch, even “a broken man.”
Shares in News Corp rose over 5.5 percent in New York, recovering some of the losses made since a newspaper report two weeks ago that police believed the News of the World had, in 2002, not only hacked the phones of the famous but the voicemail of a missing schoolgirl who was later found murdered.
Murdoch has since shut down the 168-year-old newspaper and, faced with political outrage, dropped a $12-billion bid to buy out other shareholders in British pay-TV network BSkyB.
Having published apologies in newspapers and met the parents of murdered teenager Milly Dowler, Murdoch took pains to read out a further, emotional statement of regret after a hearing in which he had responded brusquely at times about his failure to uncover the extent of a practice first exposed five years ago and said he had been “very” misled by his staff.
“I would like all the victims of phone hacking to know how completely and deeply sorry I am,” he said. Police say they are probing the hacking of messages for possibly 4,000 people, including crime victims and parents of soldiers killed in war.
“I want them to know the depth of my regret for the horrible invasions into their lives,” the elder Murdoch said. “I fully understand their ire. And I intend to work tirelessly to merit their forgiveness.”
But asked if he considered himself personally responsible “for this fiasco,” Murdoch replied simply: “No.”
Asked if he felt he should resign, he said: “No. I feel that people I trusted, I’m not saying who, I don’t know on what level, have let me down and I think they behaved disgracefully, betrayed the company and me and it’s for them to pay.”
He went on: “I’m the best person to clean this up.”
His son said they did not believe the two most senior executives to have resigned, Rebekah Brooks and Les Hinton, knew of any wrongdoing. Brooks, 43, who once edited the News of the World, was arrested and bailed by police on Sunday.
Brooks, who resigned on Friday as chief executive of News International, told a later session of the same hearing that she wanted to apologize for the scandal and denied knowing the private investigators at the heart of the allegations.
She fended off suggestions from lawmakers that they found it hard to believe an editor would not know how stories were obtained and noted some questions were a matter for the police.
Her successor as editor, Andy Coulson, who is also under suspicion of phone-hacking and bribery, is a crucial link from the scandal at the newspaper to Cameron. The Conservative party leader hired Coulson as a spokesman in 2007, just months after a News of the World reporter was jailed for hacking phones.
Murdoch did not elaborate on suspicions he may have over who of his staff was responsible for illicit practices. Asked about one of 10 journalists arrested this year by police probing hacking, he said simply: “Never heard of him.”
But he went on to say, despite suggestions from former employees that he was a very “hands on” newspaper proprietor, he “very seldom” spoke to the editors of his newspapers around the world and was not familiar with every part of his business.
“This is not an excuse. Maybe it’s an explanation of my laxity. The News of the World is less than one percent of our company. I employ 53,000 people around the world,” he said.
“I was absolutely shocked, appalled and ashamed when I heard about the Milly Dowler case only two weeks ago.”
But he said he had seen no evidence to support another recent suggestion — that his journalists might have tried to spy on the families of victims of the 9/11 attacks in the United States. The FBI is looking into that allegation.
Occasionally rapping on the table in apparent frustration, the elder Murdoch appeared to warm to proceedings in time. He joked with the committee that he thought they should be better paid and said, when asked about his frequent contacts with prime ministers of all parties: “I wish they’d leave me alone.”
An Australian who took U.S. citizenship to expand his business, Murdoch spoke of his regard for Britain and said its society had benefited from his newspapers. He also recalled the ideals of his father, a journalist who made his name exposing British military blunders in World War One, and of how his own sons and daughters were following in the family business.
There is, however, no immediate sign of the storm abating, which could force more upheaval at News Corp and elsewhere.
Two of Britain’s most senior policemen quit this week over the appointment of a former News of the World deputy editor as a consultant and the failure of the police to widen inquiries into phone-hacking after the initial case ended in 2007.
Both senior policemen defended themselves at another parliamentary committee hearing on Tuesday.
A police inquiry was reopened in January. In that month, former newspaper editor Coulson resigned from Cameron’s office.
Speaking in Nigeria, Cameron said he was committed, through new investigations, to addressing three key problems: “The wrongdoing in parts of the media and the potential that there is corruption in the police and ... the third ... which is the relationship between politicians and the media.”
But he also signaled a desire to push the agenda away from a scandal that has dominated every debate for two full weeks:
“The British public want something else too,” Cameron said.
“They don’t want us to lose our focus on an economy that provides good jobs, on an immigration system that works for Britain, a welfare system that is fair for our people.”
News International long maintained that intercepting mobile phone voicemails to get stories was the work of a sole reporter on the News of the World who, along with a private investigator, was jailed for several months in 2007.
That “rogue reporter” defense crumbled under a steady drip-feed of claims by celebrities that they were targeted. James Murdoch said he acted swiftly to cooperate with police when it became clear a few months ago in dealing with civil suits over phone hacking that there was evidence of wider criminality.
He said he had previously been aware of out-of-court payments made earlier to some public figures who had complained of phone-hacking.
Members of parliament have been asking why such payments did not prompt him to look earlier into whether there had been more phone-hacking than that dealt with at the trial in 2007.
Additional reporting by Jodie Ginsberg in Lagos and Michael Holden, Stephen Mangan, Clare Kane, Keith Weir, Mike Collett-White, Paul Sandle, Paul Hoskins, Neil Maidment, Rosalba O'Brien, Christina Fincher, Peter Griffiths, Joanne Frearson, Olesya Dmitracova, Tim Castle and Georgina Prodhan in London; Writing by Alastair Macdonald