Rupert Murdoch and his son James bowed to threats to find them in contempt of Parliament and agreed to testify about the phone-hacking scandal to lawmakers on July 19.
Both executives had earlier today written to Culture, Media and Sport Committee Chairman John Whittingdale to say they wouldn’t come to next week’s hearing. Whittingdale responded by asking Parliament’s sergeant at arms, Jill Pay, to issue both executives with summons to appear.
“We meet on Tuesday at 2:30,” Whittingdale told reporters just before noon in London today after his committee had met in private. “Either they attend or we report their failure to attend to the House. Then we are in uncharted territory.”
As constitutional experts doubted Parliament still had the power to jail the Murdochs for declining to attend, News Corp. confirmed the reversal. They will appear alongside Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive officer of News International, the publisher of News Corp. newspapers in the U.K., who had today said she would attend.
Since the July 4 report that the News of the World tabloid had hacked into the voicemails of a murdered schoolgirl, public and political anger has forced News Corp. to close down the paper. The company’s decision yesterday to drop its bid to gain full control of British Sky Broadcasting Group Plc (BSY) has done nothing to abate lawmaker fury.
James Murdoch had offered instead to appear before the cross-party panel on either Aug. 10 or Aug. 11. Rupert Murdoch had said he was prepared to give evidence instead to the judge- led inquiry being set up by Prime Minister David Cameron’s government.
Whittingdale said his committee wanted to ask James Murdoch about his July 7 statement that News International executives hadn’t told Parliament the truth during previous evidence sessions on phone-hacking.
“James Murdoch has got a lot to amplify,” said committee member Paul Farrelly, an opposition Labour Party lawmaker.
According to the House of Commons Information Office, if the Murdochs hadn’t attended, the culture committee would have made a report to the House of Commons, Parliament’s lower chamber. It could have ordered the sergeant at arms to serve a warrant ordering their attendance. Until the end of the 17th century, he would take the golden mace of Parliament with him, as a symbol of his authority. These days, the official, whose job is to maintain law and order in the Commons, can call in the police to assist in serving the warrant.
The last time a warrant was used to summon witnesses was in 1992, for Kevin and Ian Maxwell, sons of Robert Maxwell. While they attended, they refused to answer questions. Their father plundered Mirror Group Plc pension funds without authority and died in November 1991 after falling into the sea from his yacht.
The last non-member of Parliament to be found in contempt was the journalist John Junor. He was summoned in 1957 to apologize for an article that questioned the honor and integrity of politicians. The last non-member of the Commons to be imprisoned was Charles Grissell in 1880, for failing to attend a committee.
“It’s not clear whether Parliament has the power to punish someone who’s not a member of Parliament,” said Vernon Bogdanor, professor of politics and government at Oxford University and author of “The New British Constitution.” “The power hasn’t been used for so long it’s probably fallen into desuetude. In practice there’s no real sanction.”
Tony Child, consultant at Beachcroft public law group, said it could hurt News Corp.’s case to the Ofcom media regulator that it was a fit and proper company to own a major stake in BSkyB. “If you are found to be in contempt of parliament it doesn’t do your reputation a lot of good,” he said.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg earlier today questioned whether it would be possible to “frogmarch” the Murdochs and Brooks to Parliament.
“My message to Rebekah Brooks and the Murdochs is just do the decent thing,” Clegg said, answering questions after a speech in London. “You can’t hide away from this level of public anguish and anger and indeed interest. If you feel you’ve been wronged, if you feel you’ve been maligned” then “come out and set the record straight.”
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