LONDON — Rupert Murdoch told British lawmakers on Tuesday he was not responsible for a phone hacking scandal that has rocked his global empire, in a dramatic hearing interrupted when a protester tried to attack the media baron with white foam.
Murdoch appeared by turns vague, truculent, sharp and concise as he spoke alongside his son and deputy, James, calling the parliamentary inquiry “the most humble day of my career” but refusing to take personal blame for the crisis that has swept from a tabloid newspaper through the top levels of Britain’s police and even to the prime minister’s office.
Murdoch, 80, said he was “shocked, appalled and ashamed” at the hacking of the phone of a murdered schoolgirl by his now-shuttered News of the World tabloid.
But he quibbled with a suggestion that criminality had been endemic at the tabloid and said he had seen no evidence that victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attack and their relatives were targeted by any of his papers.
“Endemic is a very hard, a very wide ranging word,” Murdoch said. “I also have to be very careful not to prejudice the course of justice that is taking place now.”
Murdoch said he was not responsible for the hacking scandal, and denied his company was guilty of wilful blindness over hacking.
He laid blame on “the people I trusted but they blame maybe the people that they trusted.”
After more than two hours of testimony, a man in a plaid shirt appeared to run toward Murdoch with a pie plate full of foam, before being struck by the executive’s wife, Wendi Deng. The foam hit Murdoch’s suit jacket.
Police in the back of the committee room held an apparently handcuffed man with the foam covering his face and shirt.
Media reports identified him as Jonnie Marbles, a British comedian. Just before the attack, he wrote on his Twitter feed that: “It is a far better thing that I do now than I have ever done before (at)splat,” a slightly altered quotation from the last sentence of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.”
Police said he had been arrested on suspicion of assault during a public meeting.
The hearing resumed after a short break when Murdoch loyalist, Rebekah Brooks, also apologized for the intercepts.
Two of Murdoch’s top executives, Brooks and Les Hinton, have resigned over the scandal — something Murdoch said was a matter of regret. The uproar has also led to the arrest of Brooks, sunk Murdoch’s dream of taking full control of lucrative satellite broadcaster British Sky Broadcasting and raised questions about his control of his global media empire.
Murdoch said he lost sight of News of the World because it is such a small part of his company and spoke to the editor of the paper only around once a month, talking more with the editor of the Sunday Times in Britain and the Wall Street Journal in the U.S.
The value of the Murdochs’ News Corp. added around $2 billion while they were being grilled, trading 5.3 per cent higher at $15.74. The stock has taken a battering over the past couple of weeks, shedding around 17 per cent of its value, or around $8 billion.
James Murdoch also apologized for the scandal, telling British lawmakers that “these actions do not live up to the standards our company aspires to.”
The younger Murdoch said the company acted as swiftly and transparently as possible. Rupert Murdoch acknowledged, however, that he did not investigate after Brooks, the Murdochs’ former U.K. newspaper chief, told parliament years ago that the News of the World had paid police officers for information.
Asked by lawmakers why there was no investigation, Rupert Murdoch said: “I didn’t know of it.”
He said the News of the World “is less than 1 per cent” of his News Corp., which employs 53,000 people.
Murdoch also said he was not informed that his company had paid out big sums — 700,000 pounds ($1.1 million) in one case — to settle lawsuits by phone hacking victims.
James Murdoch said his father became aware of the settlement “in 2009 after a newspaper report. It was a confidential settlement.”
He said a civil case of that nature and size would be dealt with by the executives in the country involved — in this case himself, as head of News Corp.’s European and Asian operations.
Murdoch said he was “surprised and shocked” to learn that his company paid the legal fees for the two men jailed in the initial police hacking investigation — royal reporter Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire.
He told the committee he didn’t realize the payments had been made and he was not certain who signed off on the payments, but denied the fees were paid to buy the “co-operation and silence” of Mulcaire — whose notebooks containing more than 4,000 potential phone hacking victims are central to the current investigation.
Murdoch said he was told it was customary to pay co-defendants’ legal fees and any payments had been done “in accordance with legal counsel and their strong advice.”
He admitted that he did not know if the company continued to contribute to the feeds but said he had “asked the company to find a way for these things to cease.”
Politicians also pushed for details about the Murdochs’ ties to Prime Minister David Cameron and other members of the British political establishment.
Separately, Britain’s Conservative Party said a recently arrested phone-hacking suspect may have advised Cameron’s communications chief before the 2010 election.
Former News of the World executive editor Neil Wallis was arrested last week on suspicion of conspiring to intercept communications as part of a broadening investigation into phone hacking at the now-defunct tabloid.
In another hearing, lawmakers questioned London police about reports that officers took bribes from journalists to provide inside information for tabloid scoops and to ask why the force decided to shut down an earlier phone hacking probe after charging only two people.
Detectives reopened the case earlier this year and are looking at a potential 3,700 victims.
Brooks testified after the Murdochs, opening her remarks with an apology for phone hacking and described allegations of voicemail intercepts of crime victims as “pretty horrific and abhorrent.”
She said she was told by the News of the World that allegations of phone hacking by the paper’s journalists were untrue, and that she only realized the gravity of the situation when she saw documents lodged in a civil damages case by actress Sienna Miller last year.
“We had been told by people at News of the World at the time, they consistently denied any of these allegations in various internal investigations,” she said.
Asked whether she had been lied to by senior employees at the newspaper, Brooks declined to answer.
“Unfortunately, because of the criminal procedure, I’m not sure that it’s possible to infer guilt until those criminal procedures have taken place,” she said. Brooks also said she had never knowingly sanctioned a payoff to a police officer.
Rupert Murdoch is eager to stop the crisis from spreading to the United States, where many of his most lucrative assets — including the Fox TV network, 20th Century Fox film studio, The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post — are based.
CNN host Piers Morgan, who was editor of the News of the World for two years in the 1990s and is now based in the United States, denied any link to the scandal.
“I’ve never hacked a phone, told anyone to hack a phone, or published any stories based on the hacking of a phone,” he said.
London’s departing police chief revealed that 10 of the 45 press officers in his department used to work for News International, but he denied there are any improper links between the force and Murdoch’s media empire.
News International is the British newspaper division of Murdoch’s global News Corp.
Stephenson denied wrongdoing, or knowing the News of the World was engaged in phone hacking — but acknowledged that in retrospect he was embarrassed the force had hired Wallis as a PR consultant.
Stephenson announced his resignation Sunday, saying allegations about his contacts with Murdoch’s News International were a distraction from his job.
He was followed out the door by assistant commissioner John Yates, who said that, with the benefit of hindsight, he would have re-opened an inquiry into electronic eavesdropping of voicemail messages.
Cameron cut short a visit to Africa and is expected to return to Britain for an emergency session Wednesday of Parliament on the scandal.
A former News of the World reporter, Sean Hoare, who helped blow the whistle on the scandal, was found dead Monday in his home. Police said a post-mortem found no evidence of outside involvement in Hoare’s death and called it “non-suspicious.”
Britain’s Independent Police Complaints Commission also is looking into the phone hacking and police bribery claims, including one that Yates inappropriately helped get a job for the daughter of Wallis. Wallis has been arrested on suspicion of conspiring to intercept communications.
London police also confirmed that they once employed a second former News of the World employee besides Wallis. Alex Marunchak had been employed as a Ukrainian language interpreter with access to highly sensitive police information between 1980 and 2000, the Metropolitan Police said.
Danica Kirka, Bob Barr and Cassandra Vinograd contributed to this report.
Jill Lawless can be reached at http://twitter.com/JillLawless