BREAKINGVIEWS - James Murdoch weaker after UK phone-hack grilling

Thu Nov 10, 2011 11:38pm IST

BSkyB Chairman James Murdoch appears before a parliamentary committee on phone hacking at Portcullis House in London July 19, 2011. REUTERS/Parbul TV via Reuters Tv

BSkyB Chairman James Murdoch appears before a parliamentary committee on phone hacking at Portcullis House in London July 19, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Parbul TV via Reuters Tv

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

By Chris Hughes

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - James Murdoch got slapped around in his latest scrape in the UK phone-hacking scandal. A grilling by lawmakers failed to land a knock-out blow on the News Corp scion, who was inappropriately likened to a Mafia boss. But the hearings still left him weakened, and make it harder for him to be effective in his role as BSkyB chairman.

The second bout of questioning came after Murdoch's earlier testimony was challenged by two former News Corp executives at the centre of the voicemail interception scandal at the now defunct News of the World tabloid. But Murdoch's stance on the disputed issue -- that evidence of widespread phone hacking wasn't explicitly laid before him in 2008 -- still lacks any decisive challenge.

The doesn't mean Murdoch was vindicated. He did concede that he was made aware of the existence of an email containing evidence of endemic phone hacking -- only without being told its full significance. This is a change on his earlier testimony, which undermines his claims that he had given consistent evidence when other witnesses have flip-flopped.

Moreover, Murdoch was bounced into saying he might allow his two accusers access to their old computers, to help them clarify their testimony. It's hard to see how Murdoch can now stop this. Who knows what that might uncover.

Whatever Murdoch knew, he failed to grab the whole issue by the scruff of the neck. At best, he comes across as a busy executive fixated on News Corp's more glamorous TV empire and out of touch with UK current affairs. But even then, there are several instances of management incompetence. Murdoch didn't, for example, ask enough questions about why a big civil settlement was being offered to a hacking victim.

The hearing on Nov. 10 won't topple Murdoch from News Corp or BSkyB overnight. But the story looks set to be a distraction for longer. Murdoch's competence has been shown to be wanting. His fellow directors at BSkyB have more reason to doubt he should lead the board.

(Editing by Hugo Dixon and Sarah Bailey)

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