BREAKINGVIEWS - BSkyB directors should quiz James Murdoch

Tue Jul 26, 2011 8:07pm IST

News International Chairman James Murdoch arrives at News International in London July 12, 2011.  REUTERS/Olivia Harris

News International Chairman James Murdoch arrives at News International in London July 12, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Olivia Harris

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(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

By Hugo Dixon

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Reverse ferret is a term coined by The Sun, one of the Murdochs' UK newspapers, to refer to an abrupt U-turn in editorial line. This article is a reverse ferret, or at least a partial one.

Last week I wrote that James Murdoch should not be kicked out of his position as chairman of BSkyB. I admitted that he hadn't covered himself with glory in dealing with the scandal at the News of the World, which he indirectly managed. But I argued that this was a separate business and his track record at BSkyB was good.

Since that article appeared, Murdoch has given evidence to a committee of the UK parliament about the hacking scandal. Subsequently, part of his testimony was challenged by two former senior employees. If what the former employees say is correct, Murdoch would appear to have given false evidence.

Although Murdoch is standing by his testimony, there are enough puzzles for BSkyB's independent directors to quiz him before confirming him as chairman, as planned later this week. It could be argued that there are so many other probes going on that the directors hardly need to launch their own. But this whole saga has been bedeviled by people failing to ask tough questions when they had a chance.

Moreover, the BSkyB directors are in a unique position to grill Murdoch. He can hardly brush them off.

The key question is how Murdoch explains the discrepancy between his evidence and that of the former employees on whether he was aware of a key email when he agreed a pay-off for one of the hacking victims. The email appeared to suggest that hacking was not confined to a single rogue reporter.

The follow-up question is why Murdoch authorised a payment, thought to be 425,000 pounds, given that outside counsel had advised that the victim would receive 250,000 pounds if the matter went to court. The select committee asked this question but didn't get a satisfactory answer.

Murdoch may give perfectly good answers if BSkyB's directors ask him. But if he is evasive, they should ask him to step aside.

CONTEXT NEWS

-- BSkyB's independent directors are likely to reconfirm James Murdoch as chairman of the pay-TV broadcaster when they meet on July 28, according to two people familiar with their thinking.

-- Murdoch's position has been questioned in the wake of the alleged phone-hacking and police bribery scandal at the now defunct News of the World, part of the News International newspaper group which he indirectly manages.

-- Murdoch gave testimony to a House of Commons select committee on July 19 which has since been disputed by two former senior employees: Tom Crone, News International's legal manager until earlier this month; and Colin Myler, the editor of the News of the World until it was closed also this month.

-- They said in a statement: "We would like to point out that James Murdoch's recollection of what he was told when agreeing to settle the Gordon Taylor litigation was mistaken. In fact, we did inform him of the 'for Neville' email which had been produced to us by Gordon Taylor's lawyers."

-- Taylor is one of the News of the World's hacking victims. The "for Neville" email appeared to suggest that hacking was not confined to a rogue reporter.

-- Murdoch told the select committee that he had not been aware of the email when he agreed the settlement. He wrote to the select committee on July 22 saying: "I stand by my testimony."

-- Transcript of testimony to the select committee: here

(Editing by Robert Cole and David Evans)

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