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U-Turn: Murdochs say they plan to go Parliament

The Associated Press, Thursday, July 14, 2011, 8:32am (PDT)

LONDON (AP) -- Rupert and James Murdoch said Thursday that they planned to appear before a parliamentary committee investigating Britain's phone hacking scandal — a sudden U-turn after an extraordinary rebuff of lawmakers seeking to question them.

A spokeswoman for Murdoch's New York-based News Corp. said that the pair were in the process of confirming their attendance on Tuesday.

"The intention is to go," Miranda Higham said.

Hours earlier, the Murdochs refused to appear at the hearing before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which is probing allegations of phone hacking and bribery by employees of their newspapers.

The snub set up a confrontation between two of Britain's most powerful men and a Parliament once seen as easily bent to their will.

Britain's legislature had already forced the Murdochs to abandon their ambitions of purchasing highly profitable British Sky Broadcasting network Wednesday after lawmakers from all parties united to demand that News Corp. withdraw its bid.

Witnesses are regularly called to appear before parliamentary committees, which quiz everyone from business leaders to prime ministers on a wide range of issues.

Defiance of a parliamentary summons is illegal, and can in theory be punished with a fine or jail time. In practice, such measures have been all but unknown in modern times; the House of Commons last punished a non-member in 1957.

Rebekah Brooks, the British chief executive of the Murdochs' British arm, News International, has already said she would appear before the committee Tuesday.

James Murdoch, the chief of his father's European and Asian operations, said he was not available Tuesday but offered to appear on Aug. 10 or 11, without explaining his inability to attend earlier. Rupert Murdoch said he would not appear at all, offering instead to speak before a separate inquiry initiated by Prime Minister David Cameron and led by a judge. He said he was willing to discuss alternative ways of providing evidence to parliament.

John Whittingdale, who earlier said that the wait was "unjustifiable," welcomed the change of course.

"It will be the first time that Rupert Murdoch and James Murdoch, and indeed, Rebekah Brooks will have answered questions about this," he told Sky News television. "They will be appearing before a parliamentary committee so I would hope they would take it seriously and they will give us the answers that not just we want to hear but I think an awful lot of people will want to hear."

Meanwhile, the criminal investigation into the Murdoch empire widenened as the former deputy editor of the News of the World was arrested by detectives probing phone hacking at the defunct tabloid.

The Metropolitan Police said Neil Wallis, deputy editor under Andy Coulson from 2003 to 2007, was arrested on suspicion of conspiring to intercept communications.

Police have so far arrested seven people for questioning in their investigation of phone hacking and two others in a separate investigation of alleged bribery of police officers. No one has been charged.

Coulson, Cameron's communications director from 2007 until January this year, was arrested on July 8.

Brooks was editor of News of the World in 2002 at the time of the most damaging allegation so far, that the paper hacked into the phone of teenage murder victim Milly Dowler in 2002 and may have impeded a police investigation into the 13-year-old's disappearance. Brooks has said she was unaware of any phone hacking at the time.

Murdoch's hope of making BSkyB a wholly owned part of his News Corp. empire collapsed on Wednesday in the face of what Cameron called a "firestorm" that has engulfed media, police and politicians.

Cameron has appointed a judge for a wide-ranging inquiry into the News of the World scandal and wider issues of media regulation, the relationship between politicians and media and the possibility that illegal practices are more widely employed in the industry.

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