Trouble for heir to the empire

He has a lifesize model of Darth Vader outside his London office. But the force didn't seem to be very strong in James Murdoch this week.

He was considered to have performed poorly when he and his father, Rupert, answered questions by a panel of British MPs over their knowledge of phone hacking at the News of the World.

Now two senior executives at the company he controls have accused him of misleading Parliament in his evidence.

He told the media committee on Wednesday he had not been "aware" of an email suggesting the practice went wider than a "rogue" News of the World reporter.

But yesterday the former editor of the tabloid and its lawyer said that in 2009 they told James Murdoch about evidence suggesting phone hacking was not limited to the "rogue" reporter.

MPs announced yesterday that James Murdoch would have to explain the alleged discrepancy in his evidence to their committee. Misleading a parliamentary committee is potentially a criminal offence.

The news will have capped off a testing week for Rupert Murdoch's youngest son, the chairman of News International and deputy chief operating officer of News Corp, News International's parent company.

While he is a big Star Wars fan, James Murdoch, 38, also has a black belt in karate and is considered a shrewd if ruthless businessman.

And while he didn't always appear to be in control during this week's hearing, people who work with him paint a different picture.

Reuters quoted a former employee as describing James Murdoch as "a scary man" and another as saying that when he was in the building, "you could almost hear the Darth Vader music".

Growing up in the shadow of older brother Lachlan, he didn't always appear the heir to the News Corp throne. He studied film and history at Harvard University but dropped out in 1995 to start up a hip-hop record label. The following year, though, he joined the family company when News Corp bought Rawkus Records.

Yesterday he stood by his testimony to the committee, which had asked what he knew of a scandal that has forced senior News Corp executives and two senior police chiefs to quit and raised questions over press barons' influence on politicians.

The statement by Tom Crone, the British news group's top legal officer until last week, and Colin Myler, editor of the News of the World tabloid until it was shut down earlier this month, was the first open challenge by former senior executives of News Corp.

"I stand behind my testimony to the Select Committee," James Murdoch said in response to the assertion by Myler and Crone that they told him of an email from a News of the World reporter to "Neville" containing transcripts of hacked voicemails.

Neville Thurlbeck was chief reporter on the weekly when it published a story about English soccer executive Gordon Taylor. Murdoch later approved a large payout to Taylor, but told the committee this week he had not been in possession of all the facts when he approved it.

The phone-hacking scandal has led News Corp to drop its US$12 billion bid for the 61 per cent of pay-TV broadcaster BSkyB it does not own after public revulsion over allegations that dead soldiers' families and a missing schoolgirl, later found dead, were among those whose voicemails were hacked.

During three hours of questioning on Wednesday, James Murdoch was asked by politician Tom Watson: "Did you see or were you made aware of the full Neville email, the transcript of the hacked voicemail messages?"

"No, I was not aware of that at the time," James Murdoch told the committee, adding he was only aware of "key facts and evidence" that came to light at the end of 2010 when detectives re-launched a probe into phone-hacking and allegations that reporters had bribed police officers.

An initial police inquiry led to the jailing of a News of the World reporter and a private detective in 2007.

British police are now investigating allegations that about 4000 people had their phones hacked by journalists from the News of the World.

Crone and Myler said in their statement: "Just by way of clarification relating to Tuesday's CMS Select Committee hearing, 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."

Watson, reacting to the statement, told the Independent newspaper: "If these allegations are true, you can only reach the conclusion that James Murdoch misled Parliament."

- Agencies

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