Last Updated: Tue Jul 19, 2011 19:16 pm (KSA) 16:16 pm (GMT)

Foam on head for Murdoch as he denies responsibility for phone hacking

A man showed up with a plate of foam and dumped it on Mr. Murdoch’s head. (File photo)
A man showed up with a plate of foam and dumped it on Mr. Murdoch’s head. (File photo)

Rupert Murdoch said Tuesday he faced “the most humble day of my life” but denied ultimate responsibility for the phone-hacking scandal as the media mogul and his son faced a grilling from British lawmakers.

A man showed up with a plate of foam and dumped it on Mr. Murdoch’s head. The tycoon was not hurt, and did not need medical attention. But the lawmakers suspended the session, and asked journalists and members of the public to leave the chamber.

In earlier testimony that at times stumbled to a halt, the 80-year-old News Corporation chief said he was appalled by the activities of the shuttered News of the World newspaper but shifted the blame onto the people who worked for him.

He also told a parliamentary committee there was no evidence the tabloid hacked the phones of 9/11 victims, a key allegation being investigated by the FBI that could threaten his US operations.

“This is the most humble day of my life,” the Australian-born Rupert Murdoch said in a brief opening statement to the British parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport committee.

The scandal over the hacking of voicemails at the News of the World has rocked Mr. Murdoch’s empire, sparked the resignation of two of Britain’s top police establishment, and even placed Prime Minister David Cameron under pressure.

Former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks was due to testify later.

Mr. Murdoch, whose Chinese-born wife Wendi was also in the room, said it was “not an excuse” but that with an empire of 53,000 staff to oversee he could not be held fully responsible for failing to uncover the scandal.

He said that the company took swift action when it became aware of fresh phone-hacking evidence following a series of civil actions in 2010, but he denied knowing that the company had made payments to some high-profile victims.

Asked by opposition Labor lawmaker Jim Sheridan “Do you accept that ultimately you are responsible for this whole fiasco?” Mr. Murdoch tersely replied: “No.”

When pressed over who he blamed, Mr. Murdoch said: “The people that I trusted to run it (his media empire) and then maybe the people they trusted.”

He said he was “absolutely shocked, appalled and ashamed when I heard about the Milly Dowler case two weeks ago,” referring to the case of a murdered teenager whose phone was allegedly hacked by the News of the World.

Mr. Murdoch was also asked about claims the paper targeted the voicemails of victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, but replied: “We have seen no evidence of that at all and as far as we know the FBI haven’t either.”

At times James, 38, the chairman of Mr. Murdoch’s British newspaper operation News International, tried to step in when his father faltered on a question but was several times slapped down by lawmakers.

“I would like to say just how sorry I am and how sorry we are to particularly the victims of illegal voice mail interceptions and to their families,” James Murdoch said.

The Murdochs initially refused to appear before the committee but relented after they were formally summoned.

They appeared shortly after Mr. Cameron, who has faced pressure over his own close friendships with a number of current and former Mr. Murdoch aides, cut short a trip to Africa so he could return to address parliament on Wednesday.

“This is a big problem but we are a big country,” Mr. Cameron said after meeting Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan in Lagos.

In a further tragic twist, British police were investigating the unexplained death of whistleblower Sean Hoare, a former reporter at the newspaper who first implicated Cameron’s ex-spokesman Andy Coulson in the scandal.

Dozens of people queued up to get into the committee hearing to hear the two Murdochs and Ms. Brooks, until recently the three most powerful people in the British media.

Lawmakers also heard evidence from outgoing Scotland Yard chief Sir Paul Stephenson, who quit on Sunday amid questions over the force’s links with Neil Wallis, deputy editor at the News of the World when Mr. Coulson edited the paper.

Sir Paul admitted that 10 members of the Metropolitan Police press office had worked at News International.

But he denied taking a “swipe” at Mr. Cameron in his resignation statement and comparing the force’s employment of Mr. Wallis to Mr. Coulson.

Both Mr. Coulson, who left Downing Street in January, and Mr. Wallis have since been arrested and bailed on suspicion of phone hacking.

The flame-haired Ms. Brooks, also a former editor of the News of the World, was arrested on Sunday on suspicion of hacking and bribing police.

News International was meanwhile targeted overnight by the Lulz Security hacker group, which replaced The Sun newspaper’s online version with a fake story saying Australian-born Rupert was dead.

The initial police investigation into the Sunday tabloid resulted in the jailing of the paper’s former royal editor and a private investigator but the evidence then sat untouched for years.

Meanwhile police said a post-mortem was being carried out on Mr. Hoare, a former News of the World reporter, who alleged last year that Coulson knew about voicemail hacking.

Mr. Hoare, who had drink and drug problems, was found dead early Monday at his home in Watford, north of London. “The death is currently being treated as unexplained, but not thought to be suspicious,” police said in a statement.

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