Murdochs defy parliament in phone hack probe

LONDON - Media titan Rupert Murdoch and his son James defied the British Parliament Thursday and refused to appear next week before a committee investigating phone hacking and bribery by employees of their newspapers.

The committee said it had issued summonses to the Murdochs, setting up an extraordinary confrontation between one of Britain's most powerful men and a Parliament once seen as easily bent to his will.

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The Murdochs' refusal was a dramatic snub of a body that forced them to abandon their ambitions of purchasing highly profitable network British Sky Broadcasting Wednesday after lawmakers from all parties united to demand that Murdoch's News Corp. withdraw its bid after a string of unsavory revelations about phone hacking and bribery by its reporters.

The Murdochs' flouting of Parliament may also allow them to delay potentially uncomfortable public appearances until the furor over the scandal has cooled.

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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.

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 non-member in 1957.

And it was not immediately how Parliament could enforce its summons of the Murdochs. Rupert Murdoch is a U.S. citizen who may not be legally bound by the order.

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Rebekah Brooks, the British chief executive of the Murdochs' British arm, News International, said she would appear before the Culture, Media and Sport committee at a Tuesday hearing.

James Murdoch, the chief of his father's European and Asian operations, said he was not available Tuesday but offered to appear on Aug. 10 or 11, without explaining his inability to attend next week.

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. He said he was willing to discuss alternative ways of providing evidence to parliament

"We will expect them to respond to the summons," said committee chairman John Whittingdale.

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.

"We felt that to wait until August was unjustifiable," Whittingdale said.

Meanwhile, the criminal investigation into the Murdoch empire widenened as the former deputy editor of the News of the World was arrested by detectives probing phone hacking at the defunct tabloid.

The Metropolitan Police said Neil Wallis, deputy editor under Andy Coulson from 2003 to 2007, was arrested on suspicion of conspiring to intercept communications.

Police have so far arrested seven people for questioning in their investigation of phone hacking and two others in a separate investigation of alleged bribery of police officers. No one has been charged.

Coulson, Cameron's communications director from 2007 until January this year, was arrested on July 8.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said Murdoch had big questions to answer about the accusations of eavesdropping and police bribery at his British papers, which have forced the media titan to drop his bid to take full control of British Sky Broadcasting.

"If they have any shred of sense of responsibility or accountability for their position of power, then they should come and explain themselves before a select committee," Clegg said in an interview with BBC radio.

Brooks was editor of News of the World in 2002 at the time of the most damaging allegation so far, that the paper 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.

Brooks has said she was unaware of any phone hacking at the time.

Murdoch's hope of making BSkyB a wholly owned part of his News Corp. empire collapsed on Wednesday in the face of what Cameron called a "firestorm" that has engulfed media, police and politicians.

Cameron has appointed a judge for a wide-ranging inquiry into the News of the World scandal and wider issues of media regulation, the relationship between politicians and media and the possibility that illegal practices are more widely employed in the industry.

"It clearly goes beyond News International," Clegg said.

"It is clearly something much more systemic," Clegg said. "I don't think we should allow ourselves to believe that it is just because of the Murdochs, or Rebekah Brooks, or it's all about one commercial transaction, however significant."

Shares in BSkyB opened higher in London on Thursday but retreated toward noon to trade down 0.6 percent at 701.5 pence ($11.30). The shares closed higher on Wednesday for the first time since they began falling sharply last week amid fresh phone hacking allegations.

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