Credibility fading, James Murdoch returns to UK

LONDON (AP) — Contradicted by key former executives and challenged by his company's ex-lawyers, James Murdoch is expected back for a second grilling in Britain's Parliament on Thursday over the phone hacking scandal that has shaken his father's media empire.

Although the senior News Corp. executive has long insisted he knew nothing of the culture of criminality whose exposure has been called "Britain's Watergate," mounting evidence suggests otherwise and one observer who follows the phone hacking scandal said Murdoch would be likely to have to make some kind of concession.

"What I expect to happen is that James will acknowledge that mistakes have been made, probably even apologize to the committee," said Paul Connew, a media commentator and former tabloid editor. He explained that Murdoch might acknowledge that "perhaps he wasn't as proactive as he should've been," although he warned that there was a limit to how far any mea culpa could go.

"What I think he won't do — can't afford to do — is accept that he deliberately misled Parliament," Connew said.

James Murdoch has repeatedly insisted that he was blind-sided by the scandal at what was once his company's most powerful tabloid.

Revelations that journalists routinely intercepted the voicemails of public figures, including celebrities, politicians, police, and even crime victims sent shock waves across the British establishment, forcing the closure of the News of the World and scuttling its parent company's multibillion pound (dollar) bid for full control of satellite broadcaster BSkyB.

Murdoch's company had long insisted that the practice had been limited to a single rogue journalist, royal editor Clive Goodman, who had been jailed for phone hacking several years earlier. But in dramatic testimony to parliamentarians on July 19, Murdoch acknowledged that had never been true.

"We — the company — had not been in full possession of the facts," Murdoch told lawmakers. He added that when he took over at News International, News Corp.'s British newspaper arm, "there was no reason at the time to believe that the issue of the voicemail interceptions was anything but a settled matter."

He and his father blamed others for the lapse, with Rupert Murdoch saying he'd been betrayed by those he trusted.

Lawmakers were immediately skeptical of James Murdoch's explanation, pointing to the fact that he personally signed off on a massive settlement for phone hacking victim Gordon Taylor, a prominent sports figure who was given hundreds of thousands of pounds in compensation in return for staying mum about the deal.

The junior Murdoch would have had a motive to keep Taylor quiet, they argued. Taylor's team had uncovered an email carrying transcripts of illegally intercepted voicemail messages written by a junior News of the World reporter and marked "for Neville," an apparent reference to senior journalist Neville Thurlbeck.

Because it implicated others, the document blew a hole through the claim that only a rogue reporter had been involved in phone hacking.

In a performance described as cool and lawyerly, Murdoch denied knowing anything about "for Neville" document when Taylor's case was settled.

But since July 19 the credibility of that denial has frayed under the weight of contradictory testimony from former executives and senior lawyers.

Former News International lawyer Jonathan Chapman said Murdoch wasn't telling the truth when he said he'd been kept in the dark by his underlings.

"Nobody kept Mr. James Murdoch or any other News International/News Corporation executives from being in full possession of the facts," Chapman wrote in a letter published on August 16.

Former News International lawyer Tom Crone and former News of the World Editor Colin Myler also said Murdoch wasn't telling the truth when he said he didn't know about the "for Neville" email.

"I told him about the document," Crone told lawmakers in a joint appearance with Myler on Sept. 6.

Murdoch's assertions have also been called into question by respected outside lawyers Julian Pike and Michael Silverleaf, who advised his company on the Taylor settlement.

On Oct. 19 Pike sensationally claimed that he'd known for years that the company had been lying to the public about the extent of the scandal. Silverleaf's evidence, drafted in June 2008 and made public last week, was even more damning. It warned News International that there was "overwhelming evidence" that some of its most senior journalists had been involved in illegal practices.

Murdoch has so far stuck to his guns, denying Myler and Crone's claims and insisting he'd been kept out of the loop. News Corp. declined comment on what the 38-year-old executive would say on Thursday.

The stakes are high: Investors have become increasingly restive as the scandal continues to spread. Murdoch's position as heir apparent to his father's company is under threat.

Connew expressed some sympathy with James Murdoch, noting that the fresh-faced TV executive had just taken over his father's U.K. newspaper business when the Taylor settlement was arranged.

"It's quite possible that people didn't actually level with James Murdoch," Connew said.

Still, Murdoch should expect a rough ride.

"He's under more pressure now than he's ever been," Connew said.


Online:

Media committee website: http://www.parliament.uk/cmscom

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