Whatever misdemeanors Rupert Murdoch may ultimately be found to have committed over the phone-hacking scandal currently rocking his media empire, it seems he has decided not to add contempt of the U.K. parliament to them and has belatedly agreed to attend a parliamentary committee investigating the affair on July 19. He'll be there along with his son James and right-hand woman Rebekah Brooks and it is set to become one of the biggest media and political circuses Britain has seen for decades.
In his second about-face in as many days, the media magnate followed Wednesday's shock decision to ditch his bid to take full control of satellite broadcaster BSkyB with a last-minute agreement to attend the committee hearing. The move narrowly avoided him being reported to the House of Commons for failing to abide by a summons to attend, which had been issued on Thursday afternoon.
This latest twist in the saga came after Murdoch and his son James, chairman of News International, had early on Thursday morning rejected a polite request to attend the Culture, Media and Sport Committee's hearing. Murdoch senior said he was busy that day; his son said he could possibly attend on other days in August. Only Brooks agreed to turn up to face questioning over the escalating hacking scandal, although she stressed she might not be able to tell the committee much because she did not want to prejudice the ongoing police inquiry.
Committee chairman John Whittingdale then dropped the nice-guy approach and dispatched an officer of the House of Commons to hand-deliver personal summonses to both Murdochs, insisting they attend or face the possibility of charges of contempt of parliament. What exactly that would have meant in practice remains unclear, even to Whittingdale and parliamentary officials. No one can remember the last time such a thing happened, or what standing such a ruling would have had, if any, against a foreign national who is not directly subject to the British parliament's jurisdiction. A British citizen found guilty of such as "crime" would face a substantial fine or even prison.
Ultimately, the Murdochs appear to have decided not to risk the further damage to their already battered reputation and instead take the path of least resistance. How much they will be able or be willing to tell the committee members about the hacking scandal, which only intensifies by the day, remains uncertain. What is certain, however, is that the ten members of the committee will not waste the chance to put the heads of News International on the rack. One of those committee members is Labour MP Tom Watson, a tenacious campaigner who has been in the lead in pressing for full revelations of the hacking that took place at News International's now defunct News of the World and has led to allegations of widespread criminality, police corruption and political cowardice in the face of the might of the Murdoch empire.
Even as the shenanigans over the Murdochs' committee appearance was gripping parliament, however, the hacking scandal continued to escalate both in the U.K. and across the Atlantic, where Murdoch's U.S.-based global operation News Corp. has now become embroiled in the affair.
In the early hours of Thursday morning, police raided the home of former News of the World deputy editor Neil Wallis, who had served under then editor Andy Coulson, who later resigned over the hacking affair while claiming to have known nothing about the practice. Coulson was later employed by Prime Minister David Cameron as his media chief, but resigned that post last January as the hacking scandal refused to die down.
Within hours of Wallis' arrest, it was confirmed by Scotland Yard that after he had left the paper to run his own PR company he had been employed by the Metropolitan Police to advise Commissioner Paul Stephenson and officer John Yates on a part-time basis from October 2009 to September 2010, the same period during which Yates decided not to re-open the original hacking investigation, despite claims it had failed to expose the full extent of the activity. Yates is one of the police officers currently facing claims that he was too close to the News of the World and so was reluctant to stir up the hacking investigation.
Also on Thursday it emerged that the relatives of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian man shot dead by police in London in 2005 after being mistaken for a terrorist, may also have been targeted for phone hacking by the private detective working for the News of the World. And the scandal spread further into the U.S. with calls for the FBI to investigate claims that the News of the World had also hacked the voicemails of 9/11 victims. Senator John Rockefeller has led the demands for an inquiry after initial reports that such hacking had taken place appeared in the U.K.'s Daily Mirror newspaper, a direct rival to the Murdoch tabloids.
Former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown also continued to reveal details of his own attempts to launch an inquiry into phone hacking in 2010. A memorandum to him from the head of the British civil service, Sir Gus O'Donnell, published on Thursday showed that Brown had been warned such a probe could face lengthy legal challenges, might not be warranted because of the then limited nature of the allegations of hacking, and might "inevitably raise questions over the motivation and urgency of an inquiry" coming, as it would have done, just weeks before the general election in May of that year. Sir Gus told the BBC on Thursday that he had, nonetheless, told Brown that it was a matter for the prime minister himself to decide.
Other former ministers, including the then Home Secretary Alan Johnson, have stressed that a decision not to press ahead with an inquiry back in 2010 had been largely based on the fear that what could look like an attack on a newspaper that was hostile to Brown would be viewed as "low politics".
As the increasingly sensational affair continues to surprise on a daily basis, all attention will now focus on that meeting in a small committee room in the House of Commons next Tuesday afternoon amid hopes this will be "the big one." But if this past week is anything to go by, there is plenty of time for more surprises before then.