London: James Murdoch insisted on Thursday he'd been kept in the dark about the culture of criminality at the now-defunct News of the World tabloid, telling a committee of often-sceptical British lawmakers that he'd been blind-sided by his subordinates.
In more than two and half hours of testimony, Murdoch accused two former lieutenants of misleading both him and parliamentarians over the scope of a phone hacking scandal that has shaken his father Rupert Murdoch's media empire.
"Any suspicion of wider-spread wrongdoing, none of these things were mentioned to me," the junior Murdoch said, taking largely the same stance he took before Parliament during testimony in July.
Murdoch's repeated denials that he'd seen critical evidence of widespread criminality at his company prompted derisive comments from the lawmakers investigating the scandal.
"You must be the first mafia boss in history who didn't think he was running a criminal enterprise," said Labour lawmaker Tom Watson, a strident Murdoch critic.
Murdoch, stony-faced, called the comment inappropriate.
He laid the blame squarely at the door of the News of the World's former editor, Colin Myler, and News International's former legal adviser, Tom Crone, both of whom insist that they briefed Murdoch as long ago as early 2008 about damning evidence that proved that phone hacking went much further than had previously been acknowledged.
"I believe their testimony was misleading, and I dispute it," Murdoch said.
The finger-pointing follows months of drip-drip revelations that undermined Murdoch's credibility.
Crone and Myler's account of events has called Murdoch's credibility into question. Documents published in the months since James Murdoch's earlier appearance in Parliament — in which he insisted he was not informed of the scale of the scandal — have been particularly damning.
One, written by a senior lawyer, warned Murdoch's News International that there was "overwhelming evidence" that some of its most senior journalists had been involved in illegal practices.
"No documents were shown to me," Murdoch said.
Murdoch responded to questions quickly and confidently — occasionally striking an apologetic tone when questions steered him toward his company's failure to get to grips with the scandal.
He said executives at the company had given assurances, and that the company "relied on those assurances for too long”.
"I'm sorry for that," he said.
He also apologised for the use of a private investigator to tail the lawyers of phone hacking victims, calling the practice "appalling”.
He blamed Crone and another unnamed former News of the World employee for commissioning the surveillance, adding that it was "something I would never condone”.
Crone did not immediately return a message seeking comment. Myler's telephone number is unlisted, and a letter sent to him more than a month ago has gone unanswered.
The phone hacking scandal has thrown News International, the British newspaper arm of media conglomerate News Corp., into turmoil, forcing the closure of the News of the World and scuttling a multibillion pound (dollar) bid for full control of satellite broadcaster BSkyB.
Revelations that journalists routinely intercepted the voice mails of public figures, including celebrities, politicians, police, and even crime victims have also sent shock waves throughout the British establishment.
Murdoch's appearance had high stakes: Investors have become increasingly restive as the scandal continues to spread. Murdoch's position as heir apparent to his father's company is under threat.
More revelations are possible, and at one point lawmakers asked whether Murdoch was aware of phone hacking at The Sun, Britain's biggest selling daily. Murdoch declined comment, citing ongoing investigations. He refused to say whether he would close The Sun if evidence of phone hacking emerged there as well.
Separately, Scotland Yard chief Bernard Hogan-Howe said police were working their way through some 300 million e-mails from News International.
Some 120 officers and staff are investigating the phone hacking scandal. The force said it had contacted less than a third of the News of the World's nearly 6,000 potential victims.
First Published: Thursday, November 10, 2011, 23:17