Rupert Murdoch, his son James and former aide Rebekah Brooks faced an extraordinary showdown with MPs on Tuesday over the phone hacking crisis that has rocked Britain and threatens the media mogul’s empire.
Until recently the three most powerful figures in the British media, they will answer questions from a parliamentary committee over the spiralling crisis which has shuttered the News of the World tabloid and forced out two top police officers.
In a further bizarre twist, police were investigating the unexplained death of whistleblower Sean Hoare, a former reporter at the tabloid who first implicated Prime Minister David Cameron’s ex-spokesman Andy Coulson in the scandal.
The Murdochs’ British newspaper arm News International was meanwhile targeted by the Lulz Security hacker group, which replaced The Sun’s online version with a fake story saying Australian-born Rupert was dead.
With his News Corporation group also facing a probe in the United States and shares plummeting, the 80-year-old Murdoch has reportedly engaged public relations consultants to train him for Tuesday’s session.
John Whittingdale, chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport committee, has promised “forensic” questioning amid public anger over the hacking of crime victims, celebrities and royals.
The Murdochs and former News International chief executive Brooks face a total of at least two hours of questioning by MPs who have demanded they “account for the behaviour” of the tainted media giant.
James Murdoch, chief executive of News Corp’s Europe and Asia operation, promises to be the focus of scrutiny over payments he is alleged to have approved to the victims of hacking.
The flame-haired Brooks will also be taken to task for her remarks before the same committee in 2003 when she admitted police had been paid for stories.
Brooks was arrested on Sunday on suspicion of hacking and bribing police. She was bailed and her lawyer has confirmed that she will attend the session, although it is not clear how much she will be able to answer.
The Murdochs initially refused to appear before the committee but relented after they were formally summoned.
Two senior police figures will also face MPs’ questions on Tuesday: Scotland Yard boss Paul Stephenson and anti-terror chief John Yates, who resigned within 24 hours of each other this week.
Stephenson quit on Sunday amid questions over the force’s links with Neil Wallis, the deputy to former News of the World editor Andy Coulson. Coulson went on to become David Cameron’s director of communications.
Yates, who resigned on Monday, had refused to reopen an investigation into the NotW in 2009 and now also faces an investigation into allegations that he got Wallis’ daughter a job at the force.
An initial investigation into the the Sunday tabloid resulted in the jailing of the paper’s former royal editor and a private investigator but the evidence then sat untouched for years.
When the probe was eventually reopened in January detectives found thousands more alleged hacking victims, including murdered teenager Milly Dowler whose case caused the scandal to explode.
As the scandal kept scything through the heart of the British establishment, Cameron’s aides announced that he would cut short a visit to South Africa and Nigeria, flying back on Tuesday evening.
The Conservative leader will deliver a statement at an emergency session of parliament on Wednesday.
Cameron has also been forced to defend his own position after Stephenson took a swipe at his hiring of Coulson. Coulson resigned from Downing Street in January and was arrested on July 8.
Cameron has also been criticised over his close ties with News International executives. The Daily Telegraph reported Tuesday that he invited Brooks to his 44th birthday party last October.
Hoare, a former News of the World showbusiness reporter, alleged in interviews with The New York Times newspaper and the BBC last year that Coulson knew about voicemail hacking.
Hoare was found dead early Monday at his home in Watford, Hertfordshire Police said in a statement. “The death is currently being treated as unexplained, but not thought to be suspicious,” it said.
The Guardian newspaper said Hoare had long-term drink and drug problems.
The crisis took its toll on parent company News Corp.’s financial health as Standard & Poor’s warned Monday its credit rating could be cut.
The Wall Street Journal, which Murdoch owns, reported that the tycoon has been considering turning over the reins of News Corp. for more than a year.