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Flashes of passion from Rupert Murdoch on his 'most humble day'

  • @oliver_wright

Looking frail, sometimes hesitant, but with flashes of the anger and passion for which he is known, Rupert Murdoch came before Parliament yesterday to apologise for the phone hacking at his best-selling British newspaper, describing it as "the most humble day of my career".

By the end of the three-hour session, MPs, TV viewers and News Corp's board and investors had watched him struggling for words, seen his son reaching out to him with a comforting arm, and stared at his wife leaping to rescue him from physical assault. As a family drama, it had everything, including, ultimately, a passionate performance from the leading man.

"My company has 52,000 employees. I have led it for 57 years and I have made my share of mistakes," he said. "I have lived in many countries, employed thousands of honest and hard-working journalists, owned nearly 200 newspapers. I would like all the victims of phone hacking to know how completely and deeply sorry I am. Apologising cannot take back what has happened. Still, I want them to know the depth of my regret for the horrible invasions into their lives."

Mr Murdoch tried to defend, explain and justify the actions of the company he has built up over the last half century and which now faces the greatest crisis in its history. In the process, he revealed details of his dealings with prime ministers, editors and his most senior lieutenants, and pledged to "work tirelessly" to merit the forgiveness of phone-hacking victims.

The octogenarian was asked by the Conservative MP Louise Mensch if he planned to resign. He found his voice. Some of his employees had "behaved disgracefully, betrayed me and the company and it's for them to pay". Refusing to stand down, he said: "I'm the best person to clean this up".

He appeared lost under questioning from Tom Watson, the Labour MP who has done most to penetrate the veil of secrecy that some at News International have attempted to throw around the scandal. He gave curt one-word responses and tried to emphasise his points by banging the desk in front of him.

On a number of occasions, Mr Murdoch appeared to struggle with Mr Watson's line of questioning, leading to his son James to try to intervene. But Mr Watson told him: "Your father is responsible for corporate governance and serious wrongdoing has been brought about in the company. It is revealing in itself what he does not know and what executives chose not to tell him."

Asked by Jim Sheridan whether he accepted "ultimate" responsibility for the fiasco, Mr Murdoch replied: "No."

Mr Sheridan then asked: "Who is responsible?" Mr Murdoch replied: "The people that I trusted to run... and then maybe the people they trusted."

News Corp's share price rose 6 per cent: some analysts said it was a positive response to what appeared to be the final moments of Rupert's reign at the top of the business. Others took the view that MPs had failed to produce a coup de grâce and Mr Murdoch had actually come away from the encounter with his position strengthened.

During intense and sometimes hostile questioning from MPs on the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee, Mr Murdoch and his son James revealed:

* News International had – and may still be – paying the legal fees of its jailed royal correspondent, Clive Goodman, and the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire. James Murdoch said, when he found this out, he asked senior executives: "Why are we doing this?" He was told it was the result of legal advice.

* They appeared to blame a large City law firm and the company's head of legal affairs, Jon Chapman, for failing to pass on to the police details of serious criminal wrongdoing at the company, contained in a file held by the firm, for at least three years.

* They denied that the decision to close the News of the World was the result of an effort to save the company's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks. "We felt ashamed at what happened," Rupert Murdoch said. "We had broken our trust with our readers."

* They backed both Ms Brooks and the company's chief executive at the time of the hacking, Les Hinton. "I would trust him with my life," Rupert Murdoch said.

While James Murdoch was technocratic in his answers – at one stage referring to the "quantum of damages", Rupert was more expansive. He revealed he had been forced to go into Downing Street by the back door after the last election because either Mr Cameron or his aides did not want him to be seen entering the building.

"I just did what I was told," he said. "That's the choice of the Prime Minister, or their staff, or whoever does these things. I was asked: would I please come in through the back door? I was invited within days [of the election] to have a cup of tea, to be thanked for the support by Mr Cameron." Asked about his relationships with successive prime ministers, Mr Murdoch replied: "I wish they'd leave me alone". Turning to the central allegations, James Murdoch said it was only as result of civil actions that it became apparent that the practice of phone hacking extended beyond the former royal reporter Mr Goodman and the private detective Mr Mulcaire, who were jailed in 2007.

"At the end of 2010 the presentation of evidence that had not been in our possession previously from this civil litigation widened the circle definitively – or at least made it very apparent that this was very likely... that the circle was wider than the two individuals, Mr Goodman and Mr Mulcaire," he said. He said that he had been advised by the NOTW's then editor Colin Myler and chief lawyer Tom Crone to settle the phone-hacking victim Gordon Taylor's claim for damages out of court.

"Their advice was that, in the absence of new evidence, this was simply a matter to do with events that had come to light in 2007 in the criminal trial before I was there, and that this was a matter in the past," he said. "The police as well had closed their case and said 'There is no new evidence here'."

James Murdoch rejected suggestions that the company had inserted confidentiality agreements into the out-of-court settlements with the victims of phone hacking in order to "buy their silence". "That inference would be false," he said.

He said he only learned that the phones of Milly Dowler and other victims of crime had been hacked when it was reported in the press earlier this month. "It was a total shock. That is the first I heard of it," he said.

Asked about reports that News International journalists had tried to hack the phones of 9/11 victims in the US, Rupert Murdoch said that they had "no evidence of that at all". James Murdoch added: "Those are incredibly serious allegations and they have come to light very recently. We do not know the veracity of those allegations and are trying to understand precisely what they are.

"It is just appalling to think that anyone associated with one of our papers would have done something like that. I am aware of no evidence about that."

The Conservative MP Therese Coffey asked who decided that the NOTW should be shut down. Rupert Murdoch replied: "It was a result of a discussion between my son and I and senior executives and Ms Brooks one morning. We called the board of News Corporation to seek their agreement." Pressed on whether it was a commercial decision, he replied: "Far from it."

Rupert Murdoch was asked how often he spoke to his newspaper editors. "Very seldom," he said. "Sometimes I would ring the News of the World on a Saturday night to say 'Have you got any news tonight?' But it was just to keep in touch." He said he was careful not to be seen to be putting pressure on his editors.

Mr Murdoch said he had to deal with a "multitude of issues" every day, and admitted: "The News of the World, perhaps I lost sight of... maybe because it was so small in the general frame of our company," he said.

Asked if he would rethink the way his papers presented stories, Rupert Murdoch said: "I am sure that there are headlines which can occasionally give offence, but it is not intentional."

Ten unanswered questions for David Cameron

* What work did Neil Wallis carry out for the Conservative Party before last year's general election?

* Was Mr Cameron aware that Mr Wallis was being consulted by Andy Coulson, then the Tories' director of communications?

* Which Tory officials or members of the Leader of the Opposition's office knew about the involvement of Mr Wallis?

* Did any other former or current journalists from the News of the World assist Mr Coulson in his work as the Tories' director of communications?

* Why did Ed Llewellyn, the Downing Street chief of staff, appeal to Scotland Yard last September not to mention hacking during a forthcoming briefing for Mr Cameron by assistant commissioner John Yates?

* Did Mr Cameron question Mr Coulson about a report in the New York Times last September alleging that Mr Coulson "actively encouraged" phone-hacking as NOTW editor?

* Why was Mr Cameron surprised that Sir Paul Stephenson, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, did not mention during a meeting with Mr Cameron last week that Mr Wallis had been employed as a PR adviser at Scotland Yard?

* What, if anything, did Mr Coulson tell Mr Cameron about phone-hacking at the NOTW when he told him in January he intented to resign his Number 10 post?

* Did Rebekah Brooks urge Mr Cameron to appoint Mr Coulson as the Tories' director of communications in 2007 ?

* Was News Corporation's bid for 100 per cent ownership of BSkyB discussed during Mr Cameron's 27 meetings with executives from Murdoch's companies since last year's general election?