London – Rupert Murdoch and his son James appeared Tuesday before British lawmakers probing the phone hacking scandal that has seized public life, raising questions about the police, politicians and the media elite in the worst crisis to confront Prime Minister David Cameron.
“This is the most humble day of my life,” Mr. Murdoch senior said.
Their testimony preceded a separate appearance before Parliament’s select committee on culture, media and sport by Rebekah Brooks, the former head of the Murdoch newspaper outpost in Britain who quit as chief executive four days ago.
Their appearances followed separate committee hearing into the involvement of the police in the scandal that exploded fully only some two weeks ago with reports that The News of the World under the editorship of Ms. Brooks ordered the hacking of voice mail of a 13-year-old girl, Milly Dowler, who had been abducted and murdered. Ms. Brooks has denied knowledge of the hacking.
The committee hearings began with testimony from Sir Paul Stephenson, who resigned on Sunday as commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service, commonly known as the Met or Scotland Yard. In full uniform, Sir Paul quoted from Shakespeare to explain that once he had decided to tender his resignation, “It were best it were done quickly.”
The decision to quit was “my decision and my decision only,” he said at the beginning of 90 minutes of testimony.
At the same time, Prime Minister David Cameron cut short an African trade tour to return home for a showdown at an emergency session of the full Parliament on Wednesday with the opposition Labour leader, Ed Miliband.
The two days of hearings, testimony, spin and possible contrition reflect the extent of the scandal.
The hearings on Tuesday were being held in two bland committee rooms across from the House of Commons, close to the River Thames in the Westminster area of central London.
The Murdochs appeared before the House of Commons culture, media and sport committee in the Wilson Room of Portcullis House. Lines of people waiting to attend the Murdoch hearings began forming eight hours before their scheduled start.
The scrutiny began when Sir Paul appeared in the Grimond Room of the same building before the home affairs select committee.
He was followed by John Yates, the former assistant commissioner of the police force. Sir Paul and Mr. Yates, who resigned on Monday, have both denied any wrongdoing in their relationship with Neil Wallis, a former News of the World deputy editor who later worked as a media consultant for the police.
Mr. Wallis was also a public relations executive at an upmarket health spa, Champneys, located at Watford, north of London, where Sir Paul received free hospitality for five weeks earlier this year while recuperating from a leg injury.
“When I became aware that Mr. Wallis was in some way connected with Champneys, I thought that was a very difficult story,” Sir Paul said, explaining his resignation. “I thought, ‘This is going to be a significant story, and if I am going to be a leader and do the right thing by my organization, I better do something quickly.’”
Sir Paul said Mr. Wallis’s role with the police was “very minor.”
“I had no reason to connect Wallis with phone hacking,” he said. But, in an indication of the close ties between Scotland Yard and the Murdoch empire, Sir Paul said 10 of the 45 people working Scotland Yard’s press office had previously worked for News International.
Mr. Yates is also under investigation by police authorities probing whether he helped Mr. Wallis’s daughter get a job with the police. He said he had acted “as a post-box,” passing on an e-mailed resume from Mr. Wallis’s daughter to Scotland Yard’s human resources department. He said he “categorically denied” endorsing her job application.
Mr. Yates in particular will be quizzed on why he refused to reopen an earlier inquiry into the phone hacking scandal at The News of the World after a police review in 2009. Sir Paul said Mr. Yates “looked at” the earlier evidence “and didn’t think there was anything new.” Separately, Mr. Yates has indicated that he did not scrutinize closely the mass of evidence that had been collected, which contained the names of nearly 4,000 peoples whose voice mail may have been hacked.
As the scandal continued to convulse its senior ranks, Scotland Yard said on Tuesday that the police oversight agency, known as the Independent Police Complaints Commission, had been asked to investigate links between Dick Fedorcio, the London police communications director, and Mr. Wallis.
Mr. Fedorcio followed Sir Paul as a witness before the home affairs committee. He said he hired Mr. Wallis to help him as “an adviser,” having known him professionally since 1997. Mr. Yates had told him there was nothing in the appointment of Mr. Wallis that would “embarrass” Scotland Yard, Mr. Fedorcio said. For his part, Mr. Yates said Mr. Wallis had given him a “categorical assurance” that his appointment would not prove an embarrassment to anyone in the police.
At the later hearing, given the time pressure of the interviews with Rupert and James Murdoch and Ms. Brooks, the 10 House of Commons lawmakers, drawn from the three main political parties in Parliament, planned to ask questions they have agreed on in advance. The proceedings could unfold at breakneck pace since there will be little time to cover so much ground relating to what the trio knew of both the hacking itself and subsequent attempts to prevent closer scrutiny by Parliament, the press, the police and the public.
A senior member of the committee said the panel would focus its questions on the culture of the newsrooms at Murdoch newspapers; when phone hacking first started; who was involved; who sought to cover up the scandal; and why James Murdoch authorized settlement payments earlier in the scandal to well-known people whose voice mail was known to have been hacked.
The Portcullis room can seat only around 50 spectators but the proceedings have generated huge public interest and will be broadcast live. In British parliamentary hearings, witnesses do not testify under oath. Instead, they are obliged to answer “on their honor.” The committees do not have the power to punish those it questions, but any misbehavior unearthed would deepen the opprobrium associated with those linked to the scandal.
In political terms, the weight of the hearings lies in the opportunity they offer Parliament to assert an authority weakened in recent years by a scandal over lawmakers’ expense accounts. That could nudge the balance of power toward legislators. The witnesses can choose not to answer — in American terms, plead the Fifth — if they judge their comments could be self-incriminating.
The three will most likely appear with their lawyers, to whom they can turn for whispered advice. The committee members to watch — those members of Parliament who have most aggressively denounced the hacking in the past — include Labour members Paul Farrelly and Tom Watson and the chairman, John Whittingdale, a Conservative.
The committee’s clerks will have prepared many of the specific questions — they will be on green sheets of paper before the members — but the most combative questioners are likely to go off script.
“The trick for this committee is getting comments on the record,” said Brian Cathcart, a former journalist who worked as an adviser to the committee in the past. “They don’t expect to convict and lock up their man but to get people to say things that they will have to stand by.”
The questioning of Ms. Brooks is likely to be limited by the fact that she is a subject of the police investigation into the hacking. But she is certain to face questions about a comment she made to the committee in 2003 that her newspaper had paid the police for information — a comment she later retracted. Ms. Brooks was asked to appear before the committee at its 2009 hearing but refused to do so in person and instead sent written testimony.