London: Embattled media mogul Rupert Murdoch caved in to pressure from Britain's Parliament Thursday as he and his son James first refused, then agreed, to appear next week before lawmakers investigating phone hacking and bribery by employees of their British newspaper empire.
The abrupt U-turn — and the arrest of another former editor of the scandal-sunk tabloid News of the World — deepened the crisis for Murdoch's News Corp., which has seen its share price shaken as investors ask whether its troubled British newspaper arm could drag down the whole company.
Lawmakers took the dramatic step of issuing a summons to the once all-powerful Murdochs after the father and son said they would not appear before Parliament's Culture, Media and Sport Committee next Tuesday. Within hours, the Murdochs found they did have room in their diaries after all.
"We are in the process of writing to the select committee with the intention that Mr. James Murdoch and Mr. Rupert Murdoch will attend next Tuesday's meeting," News Corp. spokeswoman Miranda Higham said.
It was another victory for politicians over the Murdochs — something that would have been all but unthinkable just two weeks ago.
For decades, British lawmakers lived in fear of the influence of Murdoch's media empire. With the revelation of widespread criminal hacking, and the public revulsion that followed, they have been liberated, with Parliament flexing its muscles in a display of freedom some have called the "British Spring."
Business Secretary Vince Cable said Thursday that the fast-moving events were "a bit like the end of a dictatorship."
Near-unanimous political opposition in Parliament forced News Corp. on Wednesday to withdraw its bid for highly profitable network British Sky Broadcasting. On Thursday, Parliament's Culture, Media and Sport committee said it had issued summonses for Rupert and James Murdoch after they declined to appear in front of it next Tuesday.
Rebekah Brooks, who heads the company's British newspaper division, did agree agreed to testify. She was editor of the News of the World at the time of some of the hacking, but says she knew nothing about it.
It is highly unusual for witnesses to refuse to appear before parliamentary committees, which quiz everyone from business leaders to prime ministers on a wide range of issues.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said that if the Murdochs had "any shred of sense of responsibility or accountability," they would testify.
James Murdoch initially told the committee in a letter he would be willing to appear Aug. 10 or 11, without explaining why he was not free on Tuesday.
Rupert Murdoch said he would not appear at all, offering instead to speak before a separate inquiry initiated by Prime Minister David Cameron and led by a judge.
Defiance of a parliamentary summons is illegal, and can in theory be punished with a fine or jail time. In practice, such measures have been all but unknown in modern times; the House of Commons last punished a nonmember in 1957. And it was not immediately whether Parliament could enforce its summons on Rupert Murdoch, a US citizen.
Committee chairman James Whittingdale said he especially wanted to question James Murdoch, who stated when he announced the closure of the News of the World last week that Parliament had been misled by people in his employment, without his knowledge.
"We felt that to wait until August was unjustifiable," Whittingdale said.
Murdoch's News Corp. has been in crisis mode since a rival newspaper reported last week that the News of the World had hacked into the phone of teenage murder victim Milly Dowler in 2002 and may have impeded a police investigation into the 13-year-old's disappearance.
More alleged victims soon emerged: other child murder victims, 2005 London bombing victims, the families of dead soldiers, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
The company closed the 168-year-old News of the World and abandoned the BSkyB bid in a — so far fruitless — attempt to halt the crisis.
They faced more pressure Thursday with the arrest of former News of the World executive editor Neil Wallis — the ninth person involved with the News of the World to be detained by police probing phone hacking.
Police said Wallis, 60, was arrested on suspicion of conspiring to intercept communications.
He was News of the World deputy editor between 2003 and 2007 under Andy Coulson, who resigned from the paper when a reporter and a private detective were jailed in January 2007 for hacking into the phones of royal aides.
Wallis was executive editor until 2009; Coulson was Cameron's communications director from 2007 until January this year, when he quit as the hacking scandal resurfaced. He was arrested on July 8.
In another sign of what Prime Minister David Cameron has called the overly cozy relationship between politicians, the media and the police, the Metropolitan Police confirmed that Wallis had been employed as a part-time consultant to the force.
The force said Wallis' firm was employed to provide "strategic communication advice" for two days a month while its own staffer was on medical leave. The contract ended in September.
The list of potential hacking victims — police have some 3,700 names — expanded Thursday to include the family of Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian man shot dead on London's subway in 2005 by police who mistook him for a terrorist.
The family said Thursday that the phone number of de Menezes' cousin had been found in the files of Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator working for the News of the World who was jailed for hacking in 2007.
For now, News Corp.'s crisis is limited to criminal investigations in Britain. But the company could face problems in the United States, where some politicians have called for an inquiry into whether Murdoch newspapers targeted the phones of 9/11 victims in pursuit of sensational scoops.
US-based media industry analyst Richard MacDonald said the scandal was undermining Murdoch's 30-year bid to convince investors that News Corp. was "a blue chip diversified media company."
Without question, the revelations and subsequent penalties either criminal, civil or strategic will impair earnings performance, earnings multiples and asset value for who knows how long," he said.
However, News Corp. shareholders have been hearted by the company's abandonment of the BSkyB bid and announcement that it will buy back $5 billion of its own shares. The company's shares took a pounding last week but have rallied in the last few days. They were up 1 percent to $16.525 at midday Thursday in New York.
"The company is incredibly solid," said industry analyst Claire Enders.
However, the way Murdoch runs his empire has come under renewed criticism.
"Rupert Murdoch is finally on the wrong side of the tipping point make that the 'tipping over' point and it's his own fault," Nell Minow of Governance Metrics International said in a blog post this week. "Not for allowing the violations of law, ethics, and privacy at his newspapers, but for setting up a governance structure so ineffective that major failures were inevitable."
And Enders said News Corp. might be tempted to sell its other British newspapers — The Sun, The Times and the Sunday Times.
That is an outcome favored by some US analysts and shareholders — who see the titles as financially inconsequential and reputationally burdensome — as well as by many British politicians.
"The politicians want the Murdochs' role in public life to be greatly diminished," Enders said. "They would like them to move to New York and stay there.
"Since the papers have no political value any more then their economic value must be questioned as well."
First Published: Thursday, July 14, 2011, 17:23