LONDON (AP) - Media scion James Murdoch, his father’s heir apparent, was under fire Friday over claims by former newspaper executives that he misled lawmakers about what he knew, and when, about Britain’s phone-hacking scandal.
The allegations raise questions not only about his succession to the helm of the media empire but about what he may have relayed to Rupert Murdoch, the CEO and controlling shareholder.
The younger Murdoch’s credibility was tested after he told a parliamentary committee this week that he was not aware of evidence that eavesdropping at the News of the World went beyond a jailed rogue reporter. The assertion was contradicted by two former top staffers, who insisted they told him years ago about an email that suggested wrongdoing at the paper was far more widespread.
The claim brings more trouble for the 38-year-old Murdoch, who heads the Europe and Asia operations of his father’s News Corp., as his family fights a scandal that has already cost it one of its British tabloids, two top executives and a $12 billion bid for control of a lucrative satellite broadcaster.
Lying to parliament is illegal, and Tom Watson, an opposition Labour Party lawmaker, called for Scotland Yard to investigate.
“This is the most significant moment of two years of investigation into phone hacking,” Watson told the BBC, adding that the public dispute between senior Murdoch executives showed the company was “fracturing in front of our very eyes.”
James Murdoch was not testifying under oath at Tuesday’s parliamentary hearing, though he could face sanction if it becomes clear he deliberately misled lawmakers. That is highly unlike, however. The last time the House of Commons fined anyone was in 1666.
The scandal exploded earlier this month with revelations journalists at the News of the World hacked the phone of a 13-year-old murder victim while police were still searching for her and broadened to include claims reporters paid police for information.
That set off a firestorm that has hit the highest reaches of British society. It forced Rupert Murdoch to shutter News of the World, prompting a spate of high-profile resignations and departures at News Corp. and delivering the 80-year-old media baron and his son to be grilled before lawmakers.
The scandal continued its seemingly inexorable spread Friday. High-profile lawyers said they may have had their phones hacked _ something Britain’s law society said could constitute obstruction of justice, a serious criminal offense.
Media attorney Mark Stephens, who once represented Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, said Friday he was one of a handful of attorneys whose phone messages may have been intercepted by News of the World. The alleged hacking is believed to have occurred before Stephens began representing Assange, who is no longer a client.
“There are some things in life that I consider sacrosanct: patient-doctor confidentiality, confessions to priests and lawyer-client privilege,” Stephens said. “The key concern … for me is whether this information was accessed so I can alert clients.”
Stephens has represented several media organizations over the years, including previous work with The Associated Press on some cases.