Murdochs to appear before Parliament on hacking

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch, left, stands beside his son James Murdoch on a balcony overlooking horse racing at the Cheltenham Festival March 18, 2010.
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Updated at 1:59 p.m. ET

LONDON - Embattled media mogul Rupert Murdoch caved in to pressure from Britain's Parliament Thursday as he and his son James first refused, then agreed, to appear next week before lawmakers investigating phone hacking and bribery by employees of their British newspaper empire.

The abrupt U-turn — and the arrest of another former editor of the scandal-sunk tabloid News of the World — deepened the crisis for Murdoch's News Corp., which has seen its share price shaken as investors ask whether its troubled British newspaper arm could drag down the whole company.

Lawmakers took the dramatic step of issuing a summons to the once all-powerful Murdochs after the father and son said they would not appear before Parliament's Culture, Media and Sport Committee next Tuesday. Within hours, the Murdochs found they did have room in their diaries after all.

"We are in the process of writing to the select committee with the intention that Mr. James Murdoch and Mr. Rupert Murdoch will attend next Tuesday's meeting," News Corp. spokeswoman Miranda Higham said.

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It was another victory for politicians over the Murdochs — something that would have been all but unthinkable just two weeks ago.

Murdoch began his media career in Australia in 1952 after inheriting "The News" newspaper after the death of his father, and has built News Corp. into one of the world's biggest media groups, with market capitalization of $46 billion and assets including Fox News, the 20th Century Fox movie studio, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Post, The Australian newspaper and three newspapers in Britain — down from four with the death of the News of the World.

Murdoch controls 40 percent of News Corp.'s voting stock, mostly through a family trust.

For decades, British lawmakers lived in fear of the influence of Murdoch's media empire. With the revelation of widespread criminal hacking, and the public revulsion that followed, they have been liberated, with Parliament flexing its muscles in a display of freedom some have called the "British Spring."

Business Secretary Vince Cable said Thursday that the fast-moving events were "a bit like the end of a dictatorship."

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Near-unanimous political opposition in Parliament forced News Corp. on Wednesday to withdraw its bid for highly profitable network British Sky Broadcasting. On Thursday, Parliament's Culture, Media and Sport committee said it had issued summonses for Rupert and James Murdoch after they declined to appear in front of it next Tuesday.

Rebekah Brooks, who heads the company's British newspaper division, did agree agreed to testify. She was editor of the News of the World at the time of some of the hacking, but says she knew nothing about it.

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.

Deputy prime Minister Nick Clegg said that if the Murdochs had "any shred of sense of responsibility or accountability," they would testify.

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James Murdoch initially told the committee in a letter he would be willing to appear Aug. 10 or 11, without explaining why he was not free on Tuesday.

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.

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 nonmember in 1957. And it was not immediately whether Parliament could enforce its summons on Rupert Murdoch, a U.S. citizen.

Committee chairman James 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, without his knowledge.

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

Murdoch's company has been in crisis mode since a rival newspaper reported last week that the News of the World had 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.

More alleged victims soon emerged: other child murder victims, 2005 London bombing victims, the families of dead soldiers, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

The company closed the 168-year-old News of the World and abandoned the BSkyB bid in a — so far fruitless — attempt to halt the crisis.

They faced more pressure Thursday with the arrest of former News of the World executive editor Neil Wallis — the ninth person involved with the News of the World to be detained by police probing phone hacking.

Police said Wallis, 60, was arrested on suspicion of conspiring to intercept communications.

He was News of the World deputy editor between 2003 and 2007 under Andy Coulson, who resigned from the paper when a reporter and a private detective were jailed in January 2007 for hacking into the phones of royal aides.

Wallis was executive editor until 2009; Coulson was Cameron's communications director from 2007 until January this year, when he quit as the hacking scandal resurfaced. He was arrested on July 8.