Murdoch U-turn on refusal to appear before Parliament

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by a Newsnet reporter

After telling MPs that they were too busy to fit an appearance before the House of Commons committee investing the phone hacking scandal, Rupert Murdoch and his son James have now received an official summons to appear before the House.  In a rare move, the deputy serjeant-at-arms of the House of Commons has been dispatched to serve the summons on Rupert and James Murdoch in person.  Refusal to appear before Parliament once summonsed in this way is a serious offence.

Earlier this week, MPs on the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport select committee had announced that the Murdochs, along with News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks, would be invited to appear before them on Tuesday of next week.  MPs wish to grill the executives over what they knew about phone-hacking and payments made to police officers and to press Rupert Murdoch for a formal apology for his company’s actions.  

Ms Brooks sent a reply to the committee agreeing to attend on the requested date, although she stated that she may not be able to speak frankly about certain aspects of the affair which are currently subject to a police investigation.  

However in an extraordinary snub to Parliament the offices of both Rupert and James Murdoch wrote to the committee to inform them that neither was able to comply with the MPs’ request.  

James Murdoch claimed that he was too busy and was unable to fit the MPs into his schedule until mid-August, when Parliament in in recess and MPs are on holiday.

Rupert Murdoch declined the invitation without giving a reason, although he stated that he was willing to appear before the enquiry which was announced this week by Prime Minister David Cameron.  In his letter to the committee, Mr Murdoch said that he was willing to discuss alternative ways of giving evidence to the House.  

Mr Murdoch’s letter said: “Unfortunately, I am not available to attend the session you have planned next Tuesday.

“However, I am fully prepared to give evidence to the forthcoming judge-led public inquiry and I will be taking steps to notify those conducting the inquiry of my willingness to do so.  Having done this, I would be happy to discuss with you how best to give evidence to your committee.”

Enraged MPs then took the unusual step of issuing a formal summons.  The last such summons also involved father and son newspaper moguls.  It was issued to Kevin Maxwell, son of Robert Maxwell, who was summonsed to explain the financial irregularities surrounding his late father’s newspaper company.

“We will expect them to respond to the summons,” said committee chairman John Whittingdale.  Failure to comply would lead to a fine or possible imprisonment.  

Mr Whittingdale said he was keen to question James Murdoch, who had stated when he announced the closure of the News of the World last week that Parliament had been misled by people in his employment.  The MP added: “We felt that to wait until August was unjustifiable.”

Faced with the possiblity of breaching a Parliamentary summons, later on Thursday the offices of Rupert and James Murdoch announced that they would after all attend the committee hearing on the requested date.  Miranda Higham, a spokeswoman for News International, said that the pair were in the process of confirming their attendance on Tuesday and that “the intention is to go.”

Earlier on Thursday it was announced that ex-News of the World executive editor Neil Wallis has been arrested on on suspicion of conspiring to intercept communications.  In a turn of events which has proven embarrassing to the Metropolitan police, it emerged that Mr Wallis had been employed by the force to assist with public relations.  It further emerged that Sir Paul Stephenson, Commissioner of the Metropolitan police, and other senior officers dined with News of the World and executives while the now-discredited original police investigation into the phone-hacking scandal was still underway.

Mayor of London Boris Johnson met with Sir Paul in order to discover the extent of the force’s contacts with the News of the World and other News International publications.  It was announced that both agreed to refer the matter to the judge-led phone hacking inquiry ordered by David Cameron, “because the public needs to be reassured that this was not inappropriate”.

It has now been revealed that the family of Jean Charles de Menezes was also targeted by NotW phone hackers.  Mr de Menezes was the innocent victim shot dead by police in Stockwell underground station in London on 22 July 2005 after police mistook him for a suspected suicide-bomber.