News International executive chairman James Murdoch was today due to appear before the British Parliament as he returns for his second grilling by a Commons committee investigating the phone-hacking scandal.
Mr Murdoch will come under intense pressure to explain apparent discrepancies between evidence he gave the Culture, Media and Sport Committee earlier this year and the accounts later given by witnesses including News International’s former top lawyer.
His position as anointed heir to father Rupert as head of the global media conglomerate News Corp may depend on his performance, with shareholders increasingly restive about his handling of allegations of corruption at the News of the World.
He will be challenged over his claim, when he appeared before the committee alongside his father in July, that he was not informed that hacking at the News International-owned tabloid went beyond a single “rogue reporter”.
The appearance before MPs comes after the News of the World’s former chief reporter claimed he has refused a police offer to give evidence against his ex-employers.
Neville Thurlbeck says detectives asked him to become a prosecution witness after seizing documents from his home.
Evidence taken from his property after his arrest in April indicates he warned senior colleagues two years ago about hacking, he claims.
Mr Murdoch is also likely to be quizzed about allegations that reporters at his company’s papers paid the police for information, following the arrest last week of Sun reporter Jamie Pyatt.
And he will face fierce questioning about the claims of private investigator Derek Webb that he was hired by the now-defunct News of the World to carry out surveillance on prominent figures including Princes William and Harry, former UK attorney general Lord Goldsmith and the parents of Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe.
Also on the list of 153 people allegedly targeted were lawyers representing phone-hacking victims and the British Culture Committee’s most dogged interrogator, Labour MP Tom Watson.
News International acknowledged earlier this week that surveillance of solicitors Mark Lewis and Charlotte Harris was “deeply inappropriate”, but the company has not yet commented on Mr Webb’s other claims.
In his first appearance before the Culture Committee on July 19, Mr Murdoch defended the company’s previous stance that hacking at the paper was limited to “rogue reporter” Clive Goodman, who was jailed in 2007 with private investigator Glenn Mulcaire.
He insisted that an internal inquiry at the time found no proof of a wider culture of phone-hacking, and that he only learnt of allegations that other journalists were involved in 2010, when a series of celebrities launched civil actions.
However, his testimony was immediately contradicted by Tom Crone and Colin Myler, the former legal affairs manager and editor at the News of the World, whose evidence in September prompted the committee to recall Mr Murdoch.
They told MPs that they informed Mr Murdoch at a meeting on June 10, 2008 about the emergence of the notorious “for Neville” email, which provided incontrovertible proof that hacking went beyond Goodman.
Documents released by News International’s former lawyers Farrer & Co last week suggested that there was an earlier meeting between Mr Myler and James Murdoch around May 27 2008 at which the email may have been discussed. A briefing note prepared for the meeting by Mr Crone said that its discovery left the company in a “very perilous” position.
A barrister’s opinion prepared for News International’s parent company News Group Newspapers in May 2008, and provided to the committee by Farrer’s, stated that there was “a powerful case that there is (or was) a culture of illegal information access” in the company.
Meanwhile, separate documents released this week showed that News Group continued to pay Mr Goodman’s legal fees as late as April 2010, fuelling allegations that the company sought to buy the silence of those caught up in the hacking scandal.
Mr Murdoch is also likely to be questioned about newspaper reports that former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks was given a pay-off of £1.7m, office space and a company car when she quit as News International chief executive in July.
The cross-party parliamentary committee has no sanction which it can bring against Mr Murdoch if it finds that he misled Parliament at his previous appearance.
But his future may depend on his ability to fend off suspicions that he mishandled the phone-hacking scandal or orchestrated an attempted cover-up.
There are growing signs of discontent among News Corp’s independent shareholders at the prospect of a dynastic succession from Rupert to James at the head of the company.
They have been unsettled by the launch of three police investigations in the UK, and the prospects that allegations of payments to police may trigger legal action under stringent US laws against bribery of foreign officials.
Mr Murdoch would not have been re-elected to the News Corp board at the company’s annual shareholder meeting last month had he not been able to rely on the 40% of votes controlled by the Murdoch family.
His performance will play a big role in determining whether he is re-elected as BSkyB chairman at the broadcaster’s AGM at the end of this month.
Steve Rotheram, Labour member of the UK's Culture Committee, gave a taster of the questions he can expect.
“I want to know why it is that this unlawful and unethical behaviour has been allowed to manifest and indeed, become endemic, across News International,” said Mr Rotheram.
“I want to know the answers to a series of questions emanating from Murdoch’s last appearance before the committee. What emails did James Murdoch really see? Did he know what Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson are alleged to have been doing as editors of the News of the World? As the chief executive, does he accept that he was negligent?
“If, as expected, Mr Murdoch suggests that News Corp could have acted faster and more decisively between 2007 and 2010, I want to know why he made the conscious decision not to act.”