LONDON - News Corp. executive James Murdoch acknowledged Wednesday that he could have done more to get to grips with the phone hacking scandal that has rocked Britain and threatened his place as the likely heir to his father’s media empire.
Murdoch’s admission came in a seven-page letter written to British parliamentarians investigating the scandal. In it, the 39-year-old repeated his insistence that he didn’t know the extent of the illegal behavior at his now-defunct News of the World tabloid newspaper, saying that the details had been hidden from him by members of his staff.
“It would have been better if I had asked more questions,’’ Murdoch told the House of Commons’ media committee. “However the truth is that incomplete answers and what now appear to be false assurances were given to the questions that I asked.’’
Murdoch has already appeared twice before lawmakers, who grilled him in detail about what he knew about the phone hacking scandal and alleged attempts to conceal evidence of illegal activity.
Murdoch was the one who signed off on a substantial settlement to one of the first known victims of the practice. The company’s former in-house lawyer has said the payoff was aimed at keeping a lid on the scandal, but Murdoch says he had no knowledge of wider wrongdoing and was merely following expert advice.
Critics say that Murdoch was either in on the coverup or too incompetent to realize what he was agreeing to, with lawmaker Tom Watson famously accusing Murdoch of being “the first mafia boss in history who doesn’t know he’s at the head of a criminal enterprise.’’
In his letter, Murdoch mounted his most detailed defense yet, accusing his former lieutenants of working behind his back, giving inconsistent testimony to Parliament.
In contrast, he said, “My evidence has always been consistent.’’
It’s not certain whether lawmakers will accept that last claim. Murdoch initially denied knowing anything about a critical piece of evidence which suggested, as far back as 2008, that illegal behavior went much further than was being publicly acknowledged.
News International’s attempts to conceal the scope of the scandal fell apart after the Guardian and The New York Times revealed that phone hacking was endemic at the News of the World, an expose which has led to the paper’s closure and the arrests of dozens of journalists and other officials.
The British newspaper arm of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. has made cash settlements to 58 victims, including celebrities, politicians, and the families of crime victims.