The presumed heir to the Murdoch global media empire -- Rupert Murdoch's son, James -- "clearly" must address allegations he misled Parliament in his testimony on Britain's phone-hacking scandal, Prime Minister David Cameron said today.
The fresh allegations swirling around James Murdoch, and a cartoon in a Murdoch newspaper mocking coverage of the scandal, threatened to torpedo Team Murdoch's public relations strategy to weather the crisis.
James Murdoch "has got questions to answer" about his testimony Tuesday before a parliamentary committee investigating the widespread phone-hacking that occurred at the Murdoch-owned, now-shuttered News of the World tabloid in Britain, Cameron said while visiting an auto plant in the British Midlands.
James Murdoch said he was not aware of evidence that eavesdropping at the newspaper went beyond a jailed rogue reporter.
But his claim was contradicted late Thursday by two former top staff members who said they told James Murdoch years ago of evidence that suggested wrongdoing at the paper was widespread. At the time, James Murdoch was authorizing a large payment to settle a lawsuit brought by a hacking victim.
Until now, the Murdoch family and their company, News Corp., whose holdings include the Fox Network, Fox News Channel and the Wall Street Journal, seemed to have adopted a classic crisis-management strategy, said Chris Tennyson, the co-leader of the crisis-management practice at the public relations giant Fleishman-Hillard.
"The best response to a crisis usually has what I call the four 'Rs': expressions of regret, evidence of reform, efforts to provide restitution and, then the fourth R, which is a longer-term thing, recovery," Tennyson said.
The testimony by James and Rupert Murdoch before parliament appeared to follow such a game plan, he added.
But the allegations that James misled parliament, if proven true, would undo the damage control, Tennyson said.
"It's one of the fundamentals of crisis communications. Three questions are always going to be asked: What did you know? When did you know it? And what did you do about it? ... The quality of those answers, the honesty of those answers, are important," Tennyson said.
In a statement, James Murdoch, 38, said, "I stand behind my testimony to the select committee."
An opposition member of parliament said he would formally ask the police to investigate whether James Murdoch lied in his testimony. "This is the most significant moment of two years of investigation into phone-hacking," lawmaker Tom Watson said.
The Murdochs have assembled a high-powered PR team to respond to the crisis, hiring Alex Bigg and James Lundie from Edelman, the world's biggest PR firm. Tennyson said they are respected PR professionals.
Their work drew a positive review from the Guardian newspaper, which wrote, "At one point on Tuesday afternoon, the Murdochs were asked what coaching they had received in preparation for the hearing. 'We were told to tell the truth, to be as open and as transparent as possible,' came the reply. It was a little more sophisticated than that.
"Their performance strongly suggested that the suited consiglieri in the row behind them had earned their fees."
A leading public relations executive, contacted by ABC news, was far less glowing.
"They wanted to come off as credible, and not be arrogant," the executive said, requesting anonymity. "When the committee members asked Rupert Murdoch, 'Are you responsible?' and he said, 'No,' to me, that was an unbelievable answer ... he needed to take responsibility."
The PR efforts suffered another setback when the Murdoch-owned Times of London published a political cartoon titled, "Priorities" that showed three starving Somalis holding empty bowls as one of them says, "I've had a bellyful of phone-hacking."
Critics quickly blasted the cartoon. "Good God. Murdoch's troops [know] no bounds," the media critic Jeff Jarvis said on Twitter.
Tennyson said the cartoon was so at odds with News Corp.'s message of contrition during the parliamentary hearing, it had to be the work of a rogue editor.
"There is nothing to make fun of here," he said. "It certainly didn't help."