LONDON (Reuters) - James Murdoch gave “mistaken” testimony to a British parliamentary committee, two senior ex-News of the World executives said on Thursday, the most direct accusation made so far against News Corp’s heir apparent in a phone-hacking scandal.
Murdoch said he stood behind his testimony to the committee, which had asked what he knew of a scandal that has forced senior News Corp executives and two senior police chiefs to quit and raised questions over press barons’ influence on politicians.
The statement by Tom Crone, the British news group’s top legal officer until last week, and Colin Myler, editor of the News of the World tabloid until it was shut down earlier this month, was the first open challenge by former senior executives of Rupert Murdoch’s global media empire.
“I stand behind my testimony to the Select Committee,” James Murdoch said in response to the assertion by Myler and Crone that they told him of an email from a News of the World reporter to “Neville” containing transcripts of hacked voicemails.
Neville Thurlbeck was chief reporter on the weekly when it published a story about English soccer executive Gordon Taylor. Murdoch later approved a large payout to Taylor, but told the committee this week he had not been in possession of all the facts when he approved it.
The phone-hacking scandal has led News Corp, Rupert Murdoch’s global media empire, to drop its $12 billion bid for the 61 percent of pay-TV broadcaster BSkyB it does not own after public revulsion over allegations that dead soldiers’ families and a missing schoolgirl were among those whose voicemails were hacked.
During three hours of questioning on Tuesday, James Murdoch, News Corp’s deputy chief operating officer, was asked by lawmaker Tom Watson: “Did you see or were you made aware of the full Neville email, the transcript of the hacked voicemail messages?”
“No, I was not aware of that at the time,” Murdoch told the committee, adding he was only aware of “key facts and evidence” that came to light at the end of 2010 when detectives re-launched a probe into phone-hacking and allegations that reporters had bribed police officers.
An initial police inquiry led to the jailing of a News of the World reporter and a private detective in 2007.
British police are now investigating allegations that about 4,000 people had their phones hacked by journalists from the News of the World — among them politicians and celebrities as well as a missing schoolgirl, later found murdered, and families of victims of the 2005 London bombings.
Crone and Myler said in their statement: “Just by way of clarification relating to Tuesday’s CMS Select Committee hearing, we would like to point out that James Murdoch’s recollection of what he was told when agreeing to settle the Gordon Taylor litigation was mistaken.
“In fact, we did inform him of the ‘for Neville’ email which had been produced to us by Gordon Taylor’s lawyers.”
Watson, reacting to the two men’s statement, told the Independent newspaper: “If these allegations are true, you can only reach the conclusion that James Murdoch misled parliament.”
John Whittingdale, chairman of the committee, said lawmakers could push Murdoch for clarification.
“I haven’t seen the statement but if it is the case that Colin Myler and Tom Crone are in conflict on a serious issue then that is a matter we would want to obtain a response from James Murdoch on,” he told Reuters.
“James Murdoch has already said he will provide written evidence on other issues and we could ask for this to be clarified this way.”
In a sign of further turmoil at News Corp, the BBC reported on Thursday that a senior executive at the News of the World’s sister paper, The Sun, had been sacked for matters relating to his previous job at the News of the World.
Sun features editor Matt Nixson, previously deputy features editor at the News of the World, was marched out of the building that houses all News Corp’s London newspapers, a senior journalist from Murdoch broadsheet the Times of London tweeted.
“Understand at one time Nixson worked on NOTW news desk under Ian Edmondson and Andy Coulson,” the Times’s Assistant News Editor David Rose wrote on his Twitter feed.
Coulson, the former editor of the News of the World, went on to become Prime Minister David Cameron’s communications chief until he resigned in January.
He denies any knowledge of hacking but his connection to the investigation has encouraged the opposition Labour party to question Cameron’s judgment in employing him and provoked questions about Cameron’s relations with News Corp.
Additional reporting by Kate Holton; editing by Tim Pearce