LONDON, (Reuters) – Rupert Murdoch was attacked by a protester today while giving evidence to a British parliamentary committee at which he defended his son and his company over a scandal that has rocked the British establishment.
After two and half hours of evidence from the 80-year-old magnate and his 38-year-old son James, a man appeared to rise from the public area of the committee room and tried to hit the elder Murdoch with a “custard pie” — a dish of white foam.
As James rose and police moved in, watched live by millions on television, Rupert Murdoch’s 42-year-old wife Wendi Deng, who had been sitting right behind her husband, leaped forward to slap the man. He was hauled away and the session suspended.
Ten minutes later, the session resumed with an apology from the chairman and a comment from one lawmaker that the Murdochs had shown “immense guts” to continue taking questions. Rupert Murdoch had removed his jacket.
At the start of proceedings, the elder Murdoch had rejected personal responsibility for the phone-hacking and corruption scandal but, with his son, said the company was deeply sorry and intended to resolve the issue as quickly as possible.
Sitting next to James, who opened the much-awaited proceedings in a packed committee room at Westminster by apologising to victims of voicemail hacking, the Australian-born chief executive of News Corp interjected:
“I would just like to say one sentence,” he said.
“This is the most humble day of my life.”
He later said he was “shocked, appalled and ashamed” when he read two weeks ago of the case that has transformed the smouldering scandal into a “firestorm”, in the words of Prime Minister David Cameron. It has shaken Britons’ trust in the press, police and politicians, including Cameron himself.
Murdoch has shut down his top-selling Sunday newspaper, the 168-year-old tabloid News of the World, and dropped a strategically important buyout bid for broadcaster BSkyB.
But asked flat out if he considered himself personally responsible “for this fiasco”, Murdoch replied simply: “No.”
Asked who was, he said: “The people that I trusted to run it, and then maybe the people they trusted.” His son said they did not believe the two most senior executives to have resigned, Rebekah Brooks and Les Hinton, knew of wrongdoing.
Several people were ejected from the packed public area of the room as proceedings were beginning after holding up posters reading “Murdoch wanted for news crimes”. Outside, demonstrators also kept vigil throughout the hearing.
During questioning, Murdoch insisted that he had been misled when previously denying that phone hacking at the News of the World went beyond the case of a reporter who was jailed for the offence in 2007. Occasionally slapping the table in apparent frustration, he said the paper was only a small part of his business, suggesting he could not supervise it personally.
Asked about one of 10 journalists arrested this year by police probing hacking, he said gruffly: “Never heard of him.”
He added: “This is not an excuse. Maybe it’s an explanation of my laxity. The News of the World is less than one percent of our company. I employ 53,000 people around the world.”
As the session before the lower house media committee got under way, the chairman rejected a request by James Murdoch, the 38-year-old heir apparent and chairman of British newspaper unit News International, to make an opening statement.
However, after a first question, the younger Murdoch began by offering an apology: “I would just like to say how sorry I am and how sorry we are to particularly the victims of the illegal voicemail interceptions and to their families.
“It is a matter of great regret, of mine, of my father’s, and everyone at News Corporation. These actions do not live up to the standards that our company aspires to everywhere around the world and it is our determination to put things right, to make sure these things do not happen again and to be the company that I know we have always aspired to be.”
The elder Murdoch said he had seen no evidence to support a suggestion his journalists might have tried to spy on the families of victims of the 9/11 attacks in the United States. The FBI is looking into that allegation.
The two Murdochs sat side by side at a table facing the horseshoe of lawmakers asking their questions. Occasionally, the younger Murdoch attempted to break in to answer questions posed to his father.
POLICE UNDER FIRE
With a second British police chief quitting on Monday over the scandal, Cameron cut short a trade trip to Africa and was due to return in time for an emergency debate on Wednesday in parliament, which is delaying its summer recess.
Speaking in Lagos, Nigeria, before flying home as the committee hearing began, Cameron said he was committed, through new investigations, to addressing three key problems: “The wrongdoing in parts of the media and the potential that there is corruption in the police and … the third … which is the relationship between politicians and the media.”
But he also signalled a desire to push the agenda away from a scandal that has dominated every debate for two full weeks:
“The British public want something else too,” Cameron said.