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Explosive line in Murdoch report divides lawmakers

LONDON -- It's the most explosive line in the report, and the line that some Conservative lawmakers said they could not cross.

The finding that Rupert Murdoch is "not a fit person" to head a major international company led the news after the release of a report yesterday by a parliamentary committee looking into the phone-hacking scandal at Murdoch's giant News Corp.

That one line, an extraordinary personal criticism of the media magnate, turned the report into something of a political football, dividing the committee along party lines and preventing the panel's full endorsement of the lengthy report.

The committee unanimously agreed that three of News Corp.'s senior executives in effect lied to lawmakers about the extent of hacking at the Sunday tabloid News of the World. Rather than the work of a lone reporter, intercepting private voice mails seems to have been practiced on an almost industrial scale at the newspaper, which Murdoch shut down last summer.

Murdoch and his son James showed an "astonishing" lack of interest or will to get to the bottom of the affair, the report says.

But to then make a judgment as to Rupert Murdoch's fitness to run News Corp. "was wildly outside the scope" of the committee's purview, said Louise Mensch, one of five Conservative Party lawmakers on the panel.

She castigated the Labor and Liberal Democratic members of the committee for sacrificing unanimity by insisting on inclusion of that line. In the end, Mensch and three fellow Conservatives withheld their support of the report in a 6-4 vote. (The fifth Conservative, the committee's chairman, did not vote.)

Although both the Conservative and Labor parties have cozied up to News Corp. and sought the favor of its British newspapers, the Conservatives are more identified with Murdoch in the popular mind.

Tom Watson, the Labor lawmaker who has been one of the fiercest critics of News Corp., defended the report's scathing criticism of Murdoch.

"More than any individual alive, he is to blame. Morally the deeds are his," said Watson, who once compared News Corp. to the Mafia.

Analysts say that the slam on Murdoch seemed clearly aimed at influencing Britain's media regulator, Ofcom. The agency is charged with determining whether News Corp., which has a controlling 39 percent stake in British Sky Broadcasting, is a "fit and proper" holder of a broadcast license in Britain. A negative judgment by Ofcom would be a major blow to Murdoch.

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