Britain's Hacking Scandal: Will Rupert Murdoch Face the Music?

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Luke MacGregor / Reuters

News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch holds copies of the Sun and the Times as he is driven away from his flat in central London on July 11, 2011

On Tuesday, July 12, senior Scotland Yard cops sat uncomfortably in the dock of a parliamentary committee, facing a barrage of questions from legislators over their allegedly halfhearted investigations into allegations of phone hacking by reporters from Rupert Murdoch's now defunct News of the World tabloid newspaper. Next week, Murdoch himself may be facing a similar verbal onslaught. That is, if he accepts a request to appear before a House of Commons committee on July 19 along with his son James, chairman of News International, and his right-hand woman Rebekah Brooks, the editor of the now moribund paper.

In a scandal that has already delivered more shocks, surprises and revelations than a West End whodunit, a decision by Murdoch to subject himself to such a cross-examination would top the lot. The Culture, Media and Sport Committee of MPs has no power to force foreign nationals to appear before it, so for Murdoch, Australian-born but now an American citizen, to agree would provide the best possible indication of how serious this affair is for his News International empire.

Murdoch and his team will most likely face questions about why his News International not only refused to cooperate with police inquiries but actively attempted to thwart them. Indeed, Murdoch's executives did not voluntarily hand over crucial documents and e-mails related to the third and latest scandal inquiry, set up earlier this year, until civil-court cases launched by celebrities forced those documents to be disclosed anyway. Only then was full cooperation forthcoming.

Murdoch, should he attend, will also have to deal with the claims of former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown that News International newspapers had links with the "criminal underworld" and that other newspapers in the stable, the Sunday Times and the Sun, "blagged" — slang for gaining information by impersonating someone else — details on his personal finances and the fact that his young son was suffering from cystic fibrosis. The second revelation was splashed onto the Sun's front page in November 2006. News International has insisted the story was obtained by legitimate means.

Meanwhile, in a further blow to Murdoch's empire, the British government said it would back a parliamentary motion from the opposition Labour Party calling on him to abandon his bid to take over the satellite broadcaster BSkyB. The House of Commons is now certain to pass the motion Wednesday night, and while it has no legal standing, the move will pile further pressure on Murdoch to back away from the bid, which has already sparked widespread opposition among the media.

Otherwise, the latest twists in this increasingly byzantine affair came in a Commons committee room Tuesday morning, as one police officer after another attempted to explain two things: why the police failed to extend their original 2006 inquiry beyond a handful of hacking cases, despite documents seized from a private detective working for the News of the World suggesting that possibly thousands of individuals had been targeted; and, when a fresh probe was ordered in 2009 to investigate the first, why officers took just eight hours to agree with the original decision, without seeking any further legal advice.

The men who led the first inquiry — former deputy assistant commissioner Peter Clarke and his then boss, former assistant commissioner Andy Hayman — both insisted they had gone as far as the evidence, legal advice and resources had allowed. Their inquiry ended with the 2007 jailing of a private investigator and the News of the World's royal reporter.

Clarke declared he had gotten nothing but "prevarication and what we now know to be lies" from News International and that he had been up against "a major global organization with access to the best legal advice, in my view deliberately trying to thwart a police investigation." Hayman echoed the comment, admitting that the investigation now looked "lame." Within two months of leaving the Metropolitan Police in 2007, Hayman became a writer for News International's Times newspaper, but he rejected suggestions that he was in the company's "back pocket."

As for the second investigation, in 2009, following persistent claims in the Guardian newspaper that there was more to the hacking scandal than the first inquiry had pursued, assistant commissioner John Yates admitted that his decision not to reopen the case had been a "poor" one but laid much of the blame at News International's door, stating that the News of the World failed to cooperate. Suggestions from MPs that perhaps some officers were corrupt were met with declarations that, in an organization as big as the Metropolitan Police, that was always going to be the case. But specific questions about whether senior officers had themselves been paid by News International or its employees sparked eruptions of outrage from the police. After several hours of evidence taking, the legislators left the session with moods ranging from puzzlement to outright disbelief. Former Minister Chris Bryant, who believes his phone was hacked but that the case was never investigated by the police, said the officers' evidence had "beggared belief." Any hopes that the session would finally get to the bottom of the affair were left unfulfilled.

So now it is all eyes on the man at the very center of the scandal, who has been battling to contain the firestorm. Rupert Murdoch's answer to the Commons committee is awaited with bated breath.