LONDON — Rupert Murdoch “is not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company,” a British parliamentary committee said Tuesday in a scathing report on News Corp.’s handling of a phone hacking scandal.
The divisive ruling against Murdoch, his son James and three of their executives could jeopardize his control of a major broadcaster.
Parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport committee – a panel that scrutinizes the standards of Britain’s press and sports authorities – began an inquiry amid disclosures about widespread tabloid hacking of voice mail, concerns over bribes paid to police for scoops, and politicians who might have overstepped the bounds by cozying up to key players in the Murdoch empire.
The report was far more condemning of the 81-year-old media titan than expected, saying the chairman and CEO of News Corp. had “turned a blind eye and exhibited wilful blindness” over the widespread malpractice at his now-closed News of the World tabloid.
“We conclude, therefore, that Rupert Murdoch is not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company,” the report said.
The 121-page report accused three senior figures at News International, the British arm of News Corp., of misleading the committee. The three included Les Hinton, the former head of News International, who the panel said was “complicit” in a coverup. The lawmakers also said Colin Myler, the former editor of News of the World and now editor at the New York Daily News, and Tom Crone, the tabloid’s former legal manager, “answered questions falsely” while testifying before the committee.
Still, their “reluctance” to be honest with the committee was “understandable,” the committee said, given Murdoch’s “fearsome reputation.”
All three issued statements denying they had misled the committee, or had taken part in any cover-up of phone hacking. Hinton resigned from his post as the publisher of The Wall Street Journal amid the hacking scandal.
In a message to News International staff, Murdoch said he found the findings “difficult to read” and that he deeply regretted what took place.
“We certainly should have acted more quickly and aggressively to uncover wrongdoing,” he wrote. “There is no easy way around this, but I am proud to say that we have been working hard to put things right.”
The committee approved the report six votes to four, with the four members from Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party objecting to the description of Murdoch as an unfit proprietor.
Philip Davies said the conclusion on Murdoch was “not only over the top, but ludicrous.”
The scandal’s fallout has jolted Prime Minister David Cameron, who lost his top media adviser over the scandal and is fighting demands to sack a Cabinet minister over the links his office had to some of Murdoch’s key staff.
Cameron might also face new embarrassment if, as expected, Britain’s media ethics inquiry orders him and ex-News of The World editor Rebekah Brooks to disclose scores of text messages they exchanged while she ran the tabloid.
Parliament’s power to fine such offenders or send them to jail lapsed in the 18th century – and a cell underneath Big Ben has long been in disuse. However, offenders can be called to the House of Commons to be publicly admonished, a sanction last used against a non-lawmaker in 1957.
Ofcom, Britain’s broadcasting media regulator, said in a statement that it was reading the report “with interest.” It is investigating whether News Corp., which has a controlling 39 percent stake in satellite broadcaster British Sky Broadcasting, is a “fit and proper” holder of a broadcast license in Britain.
Murdoch has insisted he was unaware that hacking was widespread at the News of The World, blaming staff for keeping him in the dark and failing to inform him about payouts to victims.
The panel agreed that James Murdoch, 39, was badly at fault over the scandal – but they were again divided over the tone of their criticism. Lawmakers said they agreed that phone hacking at the News of The World dated back to at least 2001, and that James Murdoch could have halted the practice as early as 2008 if he had acted correctly.
James Murdoch had displayed a “lack of curiosity ... willful ignorance even,” in failing to demand evidence that would have shown the extent of phone hacking, the report said.
Legislators agreed that both Murdochs must be “prepared to take responsibility” for corporate failures.
“Everybody in the world knows who is responsible for the wrongdoing of News Corp. – Rupert Murdoch. More than any individual alive, he is to blame,” committee member Tom Watson, a Labour lawmaker and among the tycoon’s fiercest critics, told reporters. “It is his company, his culture, his people, his business, his failures, his lies, his crimes.”
Conservative panel members said divisions over Murdoch would undermine the serious findings made on Myler, Crone and Hinton – who worked as a top Murdoch aide on both sides of the Atlantic for decades and resigned from his post as the publisher of The Wall Street Journal amid the hacking scandal.
Legislators said Hinton had misled them over his repeated claim that hacking was not rife at the News of The World, while Myler and Crone had failed to present factual accounts of what they knew. All deny that charge.
Still, some analysts say the report’s savage criticism of the Murdoch empire could have implications in the United States.
Murdoch’s U.S. media empire includes the Fox television network and 20th Century Fox film studio, publisher Harper Collins, Dow Jones Newswires, The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post. He also owns British newspapers The Times, The Sunday Times and The Sun; the stake in BSkyB; and outlets around the world from broadcaster Sky Italia to Australian cable provider Foxtel.