Murdochs At The Phone Hacking Hearings: We Didn’t Even Know There Was Anything To Know

July 19, 2011 10:35 a.m.

Though the substance of the Parliamentary hearings over the News Of The World phone hacking scandal threatened to be overshadowed by Rupert Murdoch’s plate of shaving cream to the face, the upshot of the almost three-hour session was the Murdochs’ repeated assertions that they had no idea that many of the most egregious instances of phone hacking were occurring.

The hearing began with profuse apologies over the hackings, with James Murdoch saying that “these actions do not live up to the standards that our company aspires to,” and News Corporation chief Rupert Murdoch calling Tuesday “the most humble day of my life.”

But most of the hearings were characterized by the odd dynamic between James Murdoch’s convoluted claims to “no direct knowledge” of the phone hackings, and his father’s claims to “no direct knowledge” of essentially anything he was asked. James Murdoch repeatedly interrupted his father to give carefully worded answers about the sprawling allegations, while Rupert Murdoch’s answers were characterized by long pauses and curt responses that he was never informed about the details.

When at one point James Murdoch tried to say that it’d be “more helpful” if he could answer about the particular details of what the company knew, one Committee member replied: “It’s revealing in itself what he doesn’t know and what executives chose not to tell him.”James Murdoch did say that it was impossible to know whether the top brass at News Corporation should have known what was going on, though he phrased it in a more Rumsfeldian way than that:

And I’m not saying that somebody should have told me. To my knowledge certain things were not known. And when new information came to light, with respect to my knowledge of these events, when the new information came to light, the company acted on it, and the company acted on it in a right and proper way as best the company could. But it’s difficult to say that the company should have been told something if it’s not known that a thing was a known fact to be told.

James Murdoch also said that the company did not consider that the hacking scandal stretched beyond then-royal editor Clive Goodman after he was convicted in 2007, because after the police investigation “it was not clear that there was a reason to believe that those matters were anything other than settled matters.”

He added that there is “no evidence of impropriety” by former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks and former Dow Jones CEO Les Hinton, despite their recent resignations.

About the closing of News Of The World, Rupert Murdoch said the decision came because they felt they “had broken our trust with our readers.” James Murdoch later agreed: “We believed that the News Of The World, the actions of some reporters and people some years ago, have fundamentally tarnished the trust that the News Of The World had with its readers.” He claimed that NOTW‘s closure was not related to Rebekah Brooks’ resignation.

One Committee member asked Rupert Murdoch if he felt responsible for the breaches within NOTW, to which he replied “no.” He added that he blamed “the people I trusted to run it and the people they trusted,” and argued that “News Of The World is less than 1% of our company. I employ more than 53,000 people around the world,” and therefore he cannot necessarily know everything that is going on.

Rupert Murdoch said he “very seldom” speaks to the editors of his papers. “I’m not really in touch with them. If there’s an editor I spend most time with its the editor of the Wall Street Journal.” He added: “News Of The World perhaps I lost sight of, maybe because it was so small in the general frame of our company.”

“I may have been lax in not asking more, but it was such a tiny part of our business,” he said later, noting that “anything that’s seen as a crisis comes to me.”

Regarding the allegations related to phone hackings of 9/11 victims, Rupert Murduch said: “We have seen no evidence of that at all and as far as we know the FBI haven’t either. If they do we will treat it exactly the same way as we do here.” He added that he would “absolutely” commission an investigation if the allegations turn out to be true.

James Murdoch also said that he was “very surprised” to learn that the company had “made certain contributions to legal fees” for Clive Goodman, the reporter convicted in the initial phone hacking trial, and Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator also implicated. “I was surprised. I was very surprised,” he said. When asked who signed off on the payments, James Murdoch said he didn’t know, nor did he know whether the payments were still being made. Rupert Murdoch interjected that it would not have been the managing editors who approved the payments, but someone above them in the company. “It could have been” then-News International chief executive Les Hinton, Murdoch said.

Rupert Murdoch said he has not considered resigning because “I think that frankly I’m the best person to clean this up.

Background on the scandal is here.

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