LONDON — James Murdoch blamed subordinates on Tuesday for keeping him in the dark about illegal behaviour when he ran his father Rupert’s UK newspaper empire, and said he didn’t closely read its ill-fated tabloid the News of the World.
The 39-year-old, once seen as the clear heir apparent to his father’s News Corp business, was grilled at a high-profile judicial inquiry into Britain’s press culture, set up in the wake of revelations that the News of the World illegally hacked into phone messages on an industrial scale to get scoops.
The inquiry, ordered by Prime Minister David Cameron, will also examine the relationship between the Murdochs and politicians to establish whether these close ties helped journalists feel above the law.
Australian-born Rupert Murdoch, 81, who has seen the scandal erode the formidable political influence he wielded in Britain for four decades, is scheduled to appear before the inquiry on Wednesday and Thursday.
Investigations into the scandal have focussed on what James Murdoch knew about the illegal phone hacking, especially when he agreed to a large payout to settle a legal claim.
He has consistently maintained that the paper’s management failed to alert him to the scale of the problem.
“Knowing what we know now about the culture at the News of the World in 2006, and from what we know about the alleged widespread nature of these poor practices, then it must have been cavalier about risk and that is a matter of huge regret,” James Murdoch told a packed courtroom.
He was driven into London’s Royal Courts of Justice past a bank of photographers and broadcast trucks, to testify under oath in an inquiry which has gripped the British public.
Asked if he read the weekly News of the World, he said “I wouldn’t say I read all of it,” and asked about its daily sister paper, the Sun, he said he had “tried to familiarize myself with what was in it” .
The two papers were the biggest sellers in Britain before the Murdochs shut the News of the World at the height of the scandal last year. They have since replaced the News of the World with a Sunday edition of the Sun.
“I wasn’t in the business of deciding what to put in the newspapers,” Murdoch said.
James Murdoch has spent most of his career in pay-television. He was new to the newspaper business when dealing with the phone hacking fallout, unlike his father who long had a reputation for pulling the strings at papers that boasted their endorsements decided the outcome of elections.
Media consultant Steve Hewlett, who has been closely following the inquiry, said of James Murdoch’s testimony: “His lack of engagement with the nuts and bolts of what the business was actually about — i.e. journalism and content — is quite remarkable. I’m not saying it’s not genuine but it’s quite remarkable.”
James Murdoch became chairman of News International in 2007 when he took on the wider job of leading his father Rupert’s News Corp in Asia and Europe.
He has argued that the newspaper division was merely a small part of the job and that he could not have been expected to know about the criminality at the title.
Senior managers at the paper have said they informed him of the scope of the problem in an e-mail while they were negotiating a legal settlement, but he says he never read it in full.
In five months, the inquiry has already taken a wide-ranging and discomfiting look at press ethics and journalists’ dealings with politicians and the police.
James Murdoch is also facing questions about meetings with ministers while they considered letting the Murdochs take full control of broadcaster BSkyB, including a Christmas drinks party he attended with Prime Minister David Cameron.