No escape as Murdoch faces date with phone-hacking victims

 

Rupert Murdoch will come face to face with victims of his employees' systematic phone hacking next week after the media mogul gave way and agreed to give evidence on the scandal to Parliament.

The head of the House of Commons committee John Whittingdale, who will lead Tuesday's historic examination of Mr Murdoch and his son James, told The Independent he would try to ensure the family of Milly Dowler and other victims could be present. At least one member of the committee to question Mr Murdoch was targeted by the News of the World: the MP Tom Watson.

Mr Murdoch will be asked by MPs to apologise for the first time on behalf of his company for the hacking. He will also be questioned on whether he knew, approved or suspected any cover-up by News International.

His son James will be asked to detail when he discovered that his key lieutenants had misled Parliament over the affair and why he approved a secret £700,000 payment to one of the phone hacking victims.

In the coming days, MPs are to meet with Parliamentary lawyers to ensure that the Murdochs cannot evade their questions on the grounds of cutting across the continuing police investigation. Speaker's counsel is also expected to be present at the hearing to provide advice to MPs on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee.

Initially just Rebekah Brooks, the embattled chief executive officer of News International, had agreed to appear – although she made clear she might not answer many of the MPs' questions.

James Murdoch told the committee he could not make that date and offered alternatives of 10 or 11 August, in the middle of the Commons summer recess, while his father simply said he was unavailable. Their defiant response provoked fury across the political spectrum, with David Cameron leading demands for them to attend. Mr Whittingdale also warned he would report them for contempt of Parliament, which led to theoretical sanctions including a fine or even imprisonment.

The prospect of such humiliating treatment appeared to have forced the dramatic change of heart by the trio.

Speaking about Tuesday's meeting – which will attract worldwide interest – Mr Whittingdale said he would ensure that the Murdochs would not be able to get out of answering key questions about the affair on legal grounds.

"My intention is to have a briefing for members by Speaker's Counsel before the meeting to ensure out questions do not cut across the police inquiry.

"But James Murdoch has already gone on the record to say that the committee was misled by News International executives. We will want to know in what way, who was responsible and when he first discovered what was going on."

In his letter confirming his attendance James Murdoch said he was concerned that his evidence did not cut across other inquiries.

"We have been advised that, in the light of the fact that there are to be multiple reviews of the issues, this does carry the risk of prejudicing other judicial proceedings in particular the ongoing police investigation," he wrote.

"I would therefore respectfully asked that you take the utmost care."

Mr Whittingdale added that while space would be tight, he would ensure that if the Dowler family wanted to attend the hearing they could and added that he would liaise with the Parliamentary authorities to try to provide access to the other victims of hacking.

The Tory MP Therese Coffey, who is also on the committee, said: "We want to get to the bottom of why their executives misled the previous committee and what the truth was behind the situation at the News of the World."

The Lib Dem Adrian Sanders added: "We will be asking what happened when, who knew what when and who ultimately took the decisions."

He said the MPs would almost certainly quiz Rupert Murdoch over the extent of alleged wrong-doing at the News of the World.

Commons summons

Imprisonment is among the theoretical sanctions facing people who refuse to comply with a summons to appear before a House of Commons select committee.

If there were two empty chairs where the Murdochs should be sitting next Tuesday, the committee chairman, John Whittingdale, would report them for contempt to Commons Speaker, John Bercow. It would then be considered by the Committee on Standards and Privileges.

Had they chosen not to attend, the Murdochs could have been summoned to the bar of the Commons for a dressing-down by the Speaker – a punishment last administered in 1957.

They could be fined, although that sanction has not been used since the 17th century. They could in theory be jailed.

The punishment would be enforced by Jill Pay, the Serjeant at Arms, pictured above, in charge of Commons security.

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