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Murdoch’s Ties to U.K. Politicians to Face Probe Next Week

Thursday, 19 April 2012 12:28 PM

News Corp.’s influence over British politics since Rupert Murdoch entered the U.K. media market in the 1960s will be dissected at an ethics inquiry reviewing the ties between journalists and politicians.

The News Corp. chairman and his son, Deputy Chief Operating Officer James Murdoch, will testify at the inquiry prompted by the phone-hacking and bribery scandals at their U.K. tabloids. James Murdoch is scheduled to testify April 24, while is father will appear the following two days, according to the inquiry’s website. The Murdochs will appear in person instead of using a video link and are the only witnesses scheduled for those days.

The review began last year after evidence emerged that voice-mail interception at News Corp.’s News of the World title was rampant and not limited to a “rogue” reporter as the company claimed. Some victims and lawmakers have said Murdoch’s connections to politicians helped protect New York-based News Corp. during police probes in 2006 and 2009 that failed to uncover the extent of the scandal.

“The public are going to be gobsmacked by the closeness” between News Corp. executives and Britain’s politicians, said Duncan Lamont, a lawyer at Charles Russell LLP who represents some News Corp. competitors in the inquiry. The Murdochs, in what could be their last public appearance in the matter, “are determined to go out with a bang -- not a whimper.”

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U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, a Conservative, said last month he rode a horse loaned by London police to Rebekah Brooks, the former CEO of News Corp.’s U.K. publishing unit who has been arrested twice by police probing misconduct at the company. He did so before becoming prime minister in 2010. Murdoch’s Sun newspaper, nation’s biggest-selling daily, in 2009 said it would back the Conservative opposition in Britain’s general election after then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown promised to promote programs popular with unions.

Two police investigations and a probe by a committee of lawmakers failed to uncover the extent of phone-hacking until civil lawsuits forced evidence into the open. U.K. prosecutors said yesterday that are considering criminal charges against as many as four journalists, a police officer and six members of the public in probes triggered by phone-hacking. Police arrested three more people today, including a royal editor at the Sun tabloid and an ex-member of the armed forces, as part of their probe of bribery at News Corp. titles.

Rupert Murdoch and James, who had been considered his heir apparent before the scandal, testified before Parliament in July after allegations in civil cases that News Corp. executives conspired to cover up the scandal. James Murdoch’s testimony at the time was contradicted by former subordinates.

Leveson, Ofcom

Their appearance at the inquiry, led by Judge Brian Leveson, comes as media regulator Ofcom considers whether News Corp. is “fit and proper” to hold a stake in British Sky Broadcasting Group Plc, the U.K.’s biggest pay-TV company. The scandal prompted Rupert Murdoch to abandon a 7.8 billion-pound ($12.5 billion) bid to buy the 61 percent of BSkyB that he didn’t already own, and James Murdoch resigned as the broadcaster’s chairman three weeks ago.

Ofcom has said it won’t make a decision on Murdoch’s stake in BSkyB until three parallel police investigations into News Corp. are completed and separate reports are issued by the ethics inquiry and a new Parliamentary probe of the scandal.

‘Very, Very Wrong’

“This is one of the few things that he’s going to have to do before he can put the whole thing behind him,” Tim Bale, a professor at the University of Sussex in England, said of James Murdoch’s testimony next week. “He was a very important part of something that went very, very wrong over a number of years and you can’t extract yourself from that immediately.”

Leveson will examine the extent of Murdoch’s political influence and its effects on public policy. While other media executives are expected to give similar testimony, Rupert Murdoch has been singled out by victims’ lawyers for abusing his power.

“There’s going to be dramatic cross-examinations and some very high-profile journalists and politicians involved -- this is going to re-engage the public,” said Lamont. The Murdochs will “forcefully” defend their relationships with politicians, he said.

Daisy Dunlop, a spokeswoman for London-based News International, declined to comment on the inquiry.

Cameron, who called for the ethics inquiry, is also expected to testify, said the person familiar with the matter. The prime minister’s former press chief, Andy Coulson, edited the News of the World until one of its reporters, Clive Goodman, was jailed for phone hacking in 2007. He resigned as Cameron’s press chief in January 2011 after the scandal emerged again and was arrested in July.

The first phase of Leveson’s probe dealt with the press’s relationship with the public, interviewing high-profile victims of phone hacking such as the British actors Hugh Grant and Sienna Miller, Welsh pop singer Charlotte Church and the parents of a murdered schoolgirl whose phone was hacked. The relationship with police was also examined.

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Thursday, 19 April 2012 12:28 PM
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