LONDON — Summoned by British lawmakers Tuesday to account for a phone hacking and bribery scandal, Rupert Murdoch said he was humbled and ashamed but accepted no personal responsibility, insisting he was at fault only for trusting the wrong people at a now-defunct tabloid that made up a tiny portion of his vast media empire.
The 80-year-old media tycoon endured a three-hour grilling from lawmakers and escaped attempts to tar him with individual blame for the scandal that has rocked his empire and embroiled Britain’s top police, politicians and many journalists.
Murdoch appeared confused and flustered in the beginning of the parliamentary committee hearing, turning frequently to his son James for answers. But he regained his trademark cool and confidently told the committee that he wasn’t responsible for eavesdropping or bribing police. He also said he had no plans to resign.
He stayed seated when a prankster tried to throw a foam pie, splattering his suit jacket before Murdoch’s 42-year-old wife sprang to his aid, slapping the man, who was quickly arrested.
The scandal has become a page-turner of a drama, captivating audiences from America to Murdoch’s native Australia with scenes of private detectives hacking phones, cops being bribed for news tips, politicians being wined and dined and a murdered teenager whose phone messages were allegedly intercepted. And there’s more to come — only a fraction of the nearly 4,000 people whose information was targeted are known and the police investigation appears to be widening.
“This is the most humble day of my career,” said Murdoch, a man once so politically powerful that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair flew halfway around the world to secure Murdoch’s support as he launched the Labour Party’s bid for power in 1995.
The scandal began as a blip in 2005, when the News of the World published a story about Prince William’s knee injury. Royal officials became suspicious about the closely held data and alerted police. An inquiry led to one of the paper’s reporters and a private investigator being jailed.
The Guardian newspaper then found out that Murdoch’s papers had paid out more than $1.6 million to settle lawsuits involving allegations of eavesdropping on phone messages, but the most damning allegation came on July 4, following a revelation that the News of the World may have hacked into the phone of a 13-year-old murder victim, Milly Dowler, in hopes of getting material for news stories.
Outside of the hearing, small groups of protesters gathered with signs showing Murdoch as Darth Vader, the evil lord in the Star Wars movies.
Two of Murdoch’s top executives, Rebekah Brooks and Wall Street Journal publisher Les Hinton, have resigned. Brooks and Prime Minister David Cameron’s former communications chief, Andy Coulson — a former editor at News of the World — have also been arrested.
Occasionally punctuating remarks by slapping his hands down on the desk, Murdoch said he was “shocked, appalled and ashamed” at the hacking of the Dowler’s phone but he rejected that criminality had been endemic at the tabloid. He also said he had seen no evidence that victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attack were hacked.
Blame, he said, rested with “the people I trusted … and then, maybe, the people they trusted.”
The Murdochs and Brooks only agreed to provide evidence to the committee once they were summoned.
Rupert said he lost sight of News of the World because it is such a small part of his company and spoke to the editor of the paper only around once a month, talking more with the editor of the Sunday Times in Britain and the Wall Street Journal in the U.S.
The value of the Murdochs’ News Corp. added around $2 billion while they were being grilled, trading 5.3 percent higher at $15.74. The stock has taken a battering over the past couple of weeks, shedding around 17 percent of its value, or around $8 billion.
James Murdoch, 38, apologized for the scandal, telling British lawmakers that “these actions do not live up to the standards our company aspires to.”
The younger Murdoch said the company acted as swiftly and transparently as possible. Rupert Murdoch acknowledged, however, that he did not investigate after Brooks, the Murdochs’ former U.K. newspaper chief, told parliament years ago that the News of the World had paid police officers for information.
Brooks, who gave evidence to the committee after the Murdochs, told lawmakers she never knowingly sanctioned a payoff to a police officer.
Denying that he was a “hands-off” manager, the elder Murdoch said News of the World accounted for less than 1 percent of his News Corp., which employs 53,000 people.
Murdoch also said he was not informed that his company had paid out big sums — 700,000 pounds ($1.1 million) in one case — to settle lawsuits by phone hacking victims.
Rupert Murdoch’s wife, Wendi Deng and News Corp. executive Joel Klein, who is overseeing an internal investigation into the wrongdoing, sat behind him as he spoke.
The elder Murdoch said he closed News of the World over the criminal allegations — not financial considerations. There has been speculation that Murdoch wanted to close the Sunday newspaper in order to merge its operations with the six-days-a-week Sun.
Politicians also pushed Tuesday for details about the Murdochs’ ties to Prime Minister David Cameron and other members of the British political establishment.
Cameron, who is expected to return from Africa late Tuesday, has been criticized for employing Coulson as his communications chief when he was aware of phone hacking allegations. He faces questions from lawmakers on Wednesday in a special session.
Before Murdochs’ testimony, lawmakers questioned London police about reports that officers took bribes from journalists to provide inside information for scoops and to ask why the force decided to shut down an earlier phone hacking probe after charging only two people.
Detectives reopened the case earlier this year and are looking at a potential 3,700 victims. Police have only notified some 200 of the people.
It also emerged from outgoing police commissioner Paul Stephenson that 10 of the Metropolitan Police’s 45 press press officers used to work for News International.
Stephenson denied wrongdoing, or knowing the News of the World was engaged in phone hacking — but acknowledged that in retrospect he was embarrassed the force had hired Neil Wallis, a former executive at the paper, as a PR consultant.
Stephenson announced his resignation Sunday, saying allegations about his contacts with Murdoch’s News International were a distraction from his job.
He was followed out the door by assistant commissioner John Yates, who gave evidence before the hotly anticipated appearance by the Murdochs. Yates has denied wrongdoing and said that, with the benefit of hindsight, he would have re-opened an inquiry into electronic eavesdropping of voicemail messages.
Rupert Murdoch is eager to stop the crisis from spreading to the United States, where many of his most lucrative assets — including the Fox TV network, 20th Century Fox film studio, The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post — are based.
News International is the British newspaper division of Murdoch’s global News Corp.
In New York, News Corp. appointed commercial lawyer Anthony Grabiner to run its Management and Standards Committee, which will deal with the scandal. But News Corp. board member Thomas Perkins told The Associated Press that Murdoch has the full support of the company’s board of directors, and it was not considering elevating Chief Operating Officer Chase Carey to replace Murdoch as CEO of News Corp.