News Corp. (NWSA)’s Rupert Murdoch and his son James as well as News International Chief Executive Officer Rebekah Brooks were summoned to appear before U.K. lawmakers to answer questions about the company paying police for stories.
The executives will be asked to attend the Culture, Media and Sport Committee next week to speak about prior evidence given to the committee, where executives had said News Corp.’s U.K. newspaper unit News International had paid police. The committee expects a response by July 14, it said in an e-mailed statement today. Attendance is optional, though News Corp said in a separate statement it will cooperate with the request.
“Serious questions have arisen about the evidence given to the committee by a number of witnesses in its previous inquiry into press standards, libel and privacy,” committee chairman John Whittingdale said. “In particular James Murdoch has said that Parliament was misled. That is a very serious matter that we will not allow to go unquestioned.”
The summons follows accusations that News Corp. staff hacked into the phones of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler and terror victims and paid police for stories. That prompted Murdoch to close the 168-year-old News of the World tabloid on which his U.K. media empire was founded. Politicians from all parties have called for his planned purchase of pay-TV broadcaster British Sky Broadcasting Group Plc (BSY) to be scrapped.
BSkyB shares declined 3.3 percent to 692 pence in London trading today, less than the 700 pence a share offered by News Corp. for the 61 percent it doesn’t already own.
In a note to employees to announce the closure of the News of the World, James Murdoch said the company had misled the British Parliament. During hearings in 2007 and 2009, executives including Les Hinton, former News International chairman, and Colin Myler, News of the World editor, said that there was no evidence that more than one reporter had been involved in phone hacking.
James, 38, is deputy chief operating officer of News Corp. and since 2007 has overseen News International, the unit of the company that operates the U.K. newspapers.
The committee, whose hearings are televised, has no power to subpoena evidence or compel witnesses, who are not under oath. Previous requests for Brooks to appear have been refused. Its only power is to hold hearings and publish reports.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokesman Steve Field said it was a matter for the Murdochs and Brooks whether they chose to attend. “Committees call witnesses, and witnesses go in front of committees,” he told reporters. “It’s part of our democracy.”
Paying the Police
The inquiry will focus on previous evidence given to the committee, lawmaker and committee member Louise Mensch said in a post on her Twitter Inc. account today. At a previous hearing Brooks said London-based News International had paid police for stories.
“We have been made aware of the request from the CMS Committee to interview senior executives and will cooperate,” News International said in an e-mailed statement. “We await the formal invitation.” The committee said it expects a response by July 14.
News International blocked a police inquiry into phone- hacking by reporters at the News of the World, the police officer in charge of the investigation said today as he defended his force’s decision to limit the probe.
‘Lack of Co-Operation’
Peter Clarke, former Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, said the “complete lack of co-operation of News International,” meant the only way to build a case would have involved a trawl through evidence that could not be afforded during a time of terrorist threat. He accused the company of telling “lies.”
Clarke was one of five current and former senior officers questioned and at times mocked by the committee as they tried to explain why police between 2006 and 2010 refused to extend their investigation into illegal activities by journalists. In January, the Metropolitan Police did reopen the case, and has so far identified 4,000 potential victims.
Cameron’s spokesman said the coalition government will support an opposition Labour Party motion calling for News Corp. to withdraw its bid for BSkyB.
The Labour motion, to be debated in Parliament tomorrow, reads, “This House believes it is in the public interest for Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. to withdraw their bid for BSkyB.” The debate will finish with a non-binding vote, with the Conservatives, their Liberal Democrats partners and Labour, who between them have 618 seats in the 650-member House of Commons, voting in favor.
Labour leader Ed Miliband, who will meet with Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg this evening to discuss a planned public inquiry into phone hacking, said today there is still a risk the bid is decided on before police finish their investigation into phone hacking. He urged parties to “send a clear signal to Rupert Murdoch about what needs to happen.”
Former prime minister Gordon Brown earlier today accused Murdoch’s newspapers of using criminals to get stories about him while he was in office.
Brown said that he was reduced to tears when the Sun tabloid phoned him to say its reporters had obtained his son Fraser’s medical records showing that he had been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.
“The level of criminality involved, which is going to be exposed, meant that there were links between that newspaper, and that group of newspapers, and well-known criminals in this country,” Brown said in an interview with BBC television broadcast today. “This is an issue and will become an issue about the abuse of political power as well as the abuse of civil liberties.”
News Corp. said today it didn’t access the medical records of Brown’s son nor did it commission anyone to do so. The story about Brown’s son came from a member of the public whose family has also experienced cystic fibrosis, the company said in an e-mailed statement today.
The company’s Sunday Times newspaper also said a story about Brown’s purchase of an apartment was ‘pursued in the public interest,” and “no law was broken in the process of this investigation” and “no criminal was used.’