Rupert Murdoch and his son James expressed regret Tuesday over the phone-hacking scandal that has brought their media empire into disrepute but offered little new information as to how it occurred as they testified before a parliamentary committee in London.
The hearing was interrupted when a young man in the public gallery attempted to hurl a paper or plastic plate containing shaving foam at Rupert Murdoch. He was subdued by police after the media tycoon’s wife Wendi Deng leaped to her feet and gave him a resounding slap. Mr. Murdoch seemed unfazed but James Murdoch reacted angrily at the failure of police to provide better protection.
The assailant was identified on Twitter as Jonnie Marbles, who described himself as an activist and comedian. He shouted, “You naughty billionaire” at Rupert Murdoch as he produced the pie, which he had managed to smuggle in past security checks.
When the hearing resumed, Mr. Murdoch was without his suit jacket, suggesting it had been soiled by the foam. The public gallery was cleared of spectators and reporters after the incident.
At a hearing lasting nearly three hours, Rupert Murdoch suggested that he had little knowledge of developments in the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World newspaper during the years it unfolded because, he said, it was a small part of his vast worldwide operation.
James Murdoch, now head of News Corporation operations in Europe and Asia, pleaded limited knowledge of what had happened before he assumed responsibility for the Murdoch newspapers in Britain, and left some questions not fully answered about what he had learned since.
He said he and other executives only became aware of the full scope of the scandal in late 2010 as the result of evidence presented in civil suits filed by some victims of phone-hacking. When this information became known, he said, the company acted swiftly to cooperate with police in trying to bring the wrongdoers to justice.
Both Murdochs repeatedly expressed a determination to help police get to the bottom of the matter and to make sure nothing of the sort ever happened again. They said they had closed the News of the World because it had broken faith with its readers and was no longer trusted.
Rebekah Brooks, who resigned last Friday as chief executive of News International in Britain and was arrested on Sunday, testified later and denied she had ever paid police for information when she was editor of the News of the World or had sanctioned such payments. At a 2003 hearing, she said the newspaper had paid police for information but on Tuesday clarified that statement to say it was the responsibility of the managing editor.
She did not name him, but Stuart Kuttner was managing editor under her.
Much of the questioning of the Murdochs by members of Parliament centered on a large payment authorized by James Murdoch to a victim of phone hacking, Gordon Taylor, head of the Professional Footballers Association. Several days ago James Murdoch said he had not been fully in possession of facts of the case when he acted.
He told the hearing he authorized the payment on advice of legal counsel that News International was bound to lose a case filed by Mr. Taylor if it went to court and would incur expenses ranging from £500,000 to £1 million. The payment was reported to be £600,000 and contained a confidentiality clause but the Murdochs rejected suggestions that this was hush money.
James Murdoch said such out-of-court settlements with confidentiality clauses are common practice in the business world.
He appeared confident and articulate throughout the hearing, while his father—especially in the early stages—hesitated for long periods before answering some questions, often looked puzzled and confined himself mostly to very brief remarks.
But, saying this was “the most humble day of my career,” Rupert Murdoch read a prepared statement of apology at the end of the hearing. He and his son both expressed particular revulsion over the fact the News of the World hacked the phone messages of murdered 13-year-old Millie Dowler after she was abducted in 2002 and said they had only learned of this when it was reported in the Guardian newspaper two weeks ago.
In his prepared statement, Rupert Murdoch said the actions of people at News of the World involved in phone-hacking “went against everything I stand for.”
“Invading people’s privacy is wrong. Paying police officers is wrong,” he said, thumping the table in front of him for emphasis. He said he hoped in time to be able to restore public trust “in our company and all British journalism.”
The two men were treated respectfully by committee members but subjected to a barrage of trenchant questions—many of them referring to obscure details that some members of the general public probably followed with difficulty.
In her testimony, Ms. Brooks was calm and composed. She said as an editor she had only employed private detectives to ferret out information about known pedophiles after a young girl was killed by a pedophile. She said she had no knowledge of Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator at the heart of the phone-hacking scandal, until his arrest in 2006.
She joined in the apologies offered earlier by the Murdochs, calling what happened at the News of the World “pretty horrific and abhorrent.”
A separate hearing of another parliamentary committee heard testimony from Sir Paul Stephenson, who resigned Sunday as London Metropolitan police commissioner, and from John Yates, an assistant commissioner who resigned Monday. Both had been under fire for associations with Neil Wallis, a former deputy editor of the News of the World who later worked as a consultant for the police force.
The Guardian, which did more than any British newspaper to expose phone-hacking, reported recently that Sir Paul had visited the newspaper at one stage to advise that its reporting was exaggerated. Asked about that, he put the blame on Mr. Yates for having assured him there was nothing new coming out of the Guardian articles.
Mr. Yates, asked about allegations that he procured a police job for Mr. Wallis’ daughter, said he was merely “a post box for a CV (curriculum vitae)” of the daughter, passed it on to another official and didn’t know what happened to it after that.
He admitted he had been wrong to close an investigation of News of the World at an early stage of the phone-hacking scandal. He reopened it after fresh information came to light in 2009.
(Ray Moseley is a London-based former chief European correspondent of the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at email@example.com.)