LONDON – Rupert Murdoch admitted on Thursday there was a a “cover-up” over phone hacking at Britain’s News of the World, but said he too was kept in the dark over a scandal that would blot his reputation for ever.
In his second and final day as star witness at an official inquiry in London into the ethics of the British press, the News Corp. chairman said he should have closed the tabloid years before he eventually did so in July 2011.
“There’s no question in my mind that, maybe even the editor but certainly beyond that, someone took charge of a cover-up which we were victim to, and I regret that,” the 81-year-old told the Leveson Inquiry.
The News of the World’s royal editor and a private investigator were jailed in 2007 for phone hacking but the vast scale of the practice at the paper did not emerge until a new police probe in January 2011.
The scandal snowballed in July when it emerged the News of the World had illegally accessed the mobile phone voicemail messages of Milly Dowler, a murdered British schoolgirl, sparking public outrage.
Murdoch abruptly shut the Sunday tabloid when advertisers boycotted it, and Prime Minister David Cameron set up the Leveson Inquiry to probe the ethics of the press and its relations with politicians and police.
“The News of the World, to be quite honest, is an aberration and it’s my fault. It’s going to be a blot on my reputation for the rest of my life,” Murdoch said in his sworn testimony.
Asked why he closed the News of the World so suddenly, the Australian-born tycoon replied: “I panicked. But I am glad I did… I am sorry I didn’t close it years before and put a Sunday Sun in.”
He finally launched a Sunday version of The Sun — Britain’s biggest-selling tabloid and the paper Murdoch said was closest to his heart — earlier this year.
Murdoch said that since the scandal, he had spent “hundreds of millions of dollars” on a clean-up at New York-based News Corp. which involved trawling through 300 million emails, of which two million received closer scrutiny.
He insisted the firm had also looked at Murdoch’s US and Australian newspapers and found no evidence of wrongdoing.
When pressed where the phone hacking cover-up originated, the Australian-born tycoon said it was “from within the News of the World.”
“I think the senior executives were all… misinformed and shielded from anything that was going on there. And I do blame one or two people for that, whom perhaps I shouldn’t name because for all I know they may be arrested yet,” he said.
“There were one or two very strong characters there who I think had been there many, many, many years and were friends of the journalists,” he said.
“The person I’m thinking of was a friend of the journalists, a drinking pal and a clever lawyer… this person forbade people to go and report to Mrs Brooks or to James.”
Former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks resigned as chief executive of Murdoch’s British newspaper wing when the hacking scandal erupted in July last year, while Murdoch’s son James resigned as its chairman in February.
Murdoch meanwhile denied that he had ever discussed News Corp.’s bid for full control of British satellite broadcaster BSkyB with British culture minister Jeremy Hunt.
Hunt’s special adviser, Adam Smith, resigned on Wednesday over claims that he leaked details to a News Corp. lobbyist about the government’s view of its takeover attempt.
Murdoch abandoned the BSkyB bid when the phone hacking scandal blew up.
In the first day of his long-awaited testimony on Wednesday, Murdoch rejected claims about his influence on British politics denied discussing the controversial BSkyB deal with Cameron.
Murdoch still owns The Sun, The Times and Sunday Times in Britain and the Wall Street Journal and New York Post in the United States.
News Corp. has paid out millions of pounds in compensation to hacking victims, while more than 40 people have been arrested over hacking and alleged bribery of public officials by staff at the News of the World and The Sun.
A British parliamentary inquiry into the hacking scandal, to which both Murdochs testified last year, said that it would publish its highly-anticipated findings on Tuesday.