ONE of the basic questions newspaper reporters are trained to ask in any investigation is “Who knew what and when?” This is what lies at the heart of the phone hacking scandal at News International as evidence has emerged of illegal hacking and clandestine tracking of individuals on an industrial scale. The hackers and trackers were hired and paid for their services – some receiving strikingly generous remuneration.
The problem for News International’s James Murdoch has been whether to admit knowledge of evidence pointing to widespread illegality for years, or continue to insist that he had not been made aware of its scale and knew even less. The problem, of course, is that he is the chief executive, and the defence of being “unaware” cannot but reflect on his competence in this position.
It was this “dead bat” series of responses at a Commons hearing yesterday that finally drove Labour MP Tom Watson to ask Mr Murdoch if he was familiar with the code of “omerta” and to accuse him of being “a mafia boss… running a criminal enterprise”. Much dogged work was thus overshadowed by a lurid attack that neither pierced the witness nor elicited support from fellow MPs. The deeply uncomfortable facts for News International are that it has crossed the line of acceptable behaviour time after time; the culture within the company was toxic, and that few individuals who have been called to account have proved themselves believable. The result is the more questions are pursued, the greater the lack of confidence in the answers given.