Phone Hacking Scandal: Murdochs in the News Again

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. Britain's long hard look at the ethics of its media is far from over. Today in London the focus was on James Murdoch and his relationships with politicians. James is a son of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corporation owns The Wall Street Journal and Fox, among many other news outlets. In Britain the Murdochs have been under constant scrutiny ever since the infamous phone hacking scandal that forced the closure of their New of the World tabloid. The BBC's Rob Watson has been covering today's events at the Leveson inquiry, a judge-lead investigation setup last year in response to that scandal. Rob, some of our listeners may remember that last summer Rupert Murdoch and his son James appeared before a British parliamentary committee. Rupert famously said that day was his most humble. This week the Murdochs aren't facing member of parliament, but they are facing a judge as part of another inquiry. Explain what's happening now and why it matters.

Rob Watson: Yes, it's something of confusing picture, there's so much going on, but essentially what you have is there's been a parliamentary investigation by a committee of MPs. There are also a number of police investigations and then a few like underlying at all, is this much broader inquiry by Justice Leveson. And essentially that's looking into the broader issue of Britain's tabloid press, Britain's newspapers, their culture, their ethics, their practices and whether anything needs to be done differently as to how they're regulated. And what's happened is that the inquiry is now moved onto the section where it wants to look at the relationships between prominent, powerful media owners like the Murdochs and politicians. And to look at such issues as well for backing politicians or political parties and their newspapers, did they expect some kind of favors in return from the politicians? Did they expect to have some influence on government? So that's the stage we're at and clearly a very sensitive stage, a very difficult stage not just for the Murdochs of course, but for British politicians.

Werman: Hm, so today, Rob, what were these specific allegations or concerns about James Murdoch's conduct that the inquiry was, is trying to probe?

Watson: Well of course there was a section that was about the phone hacking scandal that of course sparked all this off in the first place. And James Murdoch repeated the defense that he'd made before to the MPs, which was essentially to say that when he came to take over his father's British newspapers he had received assurances at the time that phone hacking was a one off thing, that it was something that happened in the past and that there wasn't some huge bomb waiting to explode. And he continued to insist that had always been his view, that he hadn't known how extensive that it was and that he was as surprised and as shocked as the rest of us when it happened. But then the inquiry moved onto this issue of the relationship between press owners like the Murdochs and the government's. And there was a particular focus on one issue and that is the efforts by News Corporation to have a full takeover of a British pay-per-view television channel known as BSkyB. And there was a great deal of focus on the huge amount of contact that the Murdoch empire had with the office of one government minister, a man called Jeremy Hunt, he's in charge of culture and media over this bid. And the level of that contact has already provoked some opposition MPs to start calling for the government minister's head, so I think that gives you a flavor of what's been happening.

Werman: Finally, Rob, Rupert Murdoch will be on the stand tomorrow. I can imagine it's a much anticipated appearance, but are you expecting any real revelations?

Watson: Well it certainly is much anticipated and I think people are expecting a feisty performance from Rupert Murdoch. He certainly put in a pretty feisty performance when he appeared before MPs. I think there is huge interest. Of course, no one knows what he's going to say because on this issue of the proprietor's newspaper owner's relationship with politicians, of course in Rupert Murdoch's case rather than his son's, that is a relationship that goes back an awful long way. Rupert Murdoch has been a media giant in this country for 30, 40, 50 years and so the very level and extent of his contacts could be a fascinating area to explore should he decide to tell all sorts of anecdotes.

Werman: The BBC's Rob Watson has been covering the Leveson inquiry. He joined us from London. Rob, thank you.

Watson: Thank you, Marco.