LONDON — Rupert Murdoch and his son, James, confronted an angry parliamentary committee on Tuesday, insisting they did not know the scope of phone hacking and other illegal newsgathering at their News of the World tabloid and apologizing for being the source of one of the worst crises in the history of British media.
The hearing was dramatically interrupted at one point when a man in a plaid shirt walked up to the witness table, yelled "You are a greedy billionaire," and tried to shove a shaving-cream pie in the face of the 80-year-old Rupert Murdoch.
Murdoch repeatedly pounded his hand on a table as he spoke, but nevertheless appeared removed from day-to-day details of the scandal and seemed unprepared for detailed questioning.
Appearing for the first time in such a forum, the Australian-born baron of the conservative press strained at times to hear questions and often turned to his son, who oversees the company's British operations, to field them for him. When pressed to answer himself, he offered candid, unedited responses.
"There were people in the company which were apparently guilty, and we have to find them and we have to deal with them appropriately," Murdoch conceded at one point.
At the same time, he said he did not consider himself ultimately responsible. And both he and James Murdoch, 38, said they did not think top executives at News of the World were aware of the hacking when it was taking place.
Both father and son mounted a rigorous defense of the company's response to the phone hacking of thousands of British citizens, including members of the royal family, by the now-shuttered News of the World.
Rupert Murdoch, in particular, backed two top News Corp. executives who have resigned in light of the scandal, Les Hinton and Rebekah Brooks.
Brooks, the former editor of News of the World and chief executive of News Corp.'s British operations until last Friday, was arrested Sunday and released on bail. She appeared before the committee on culture, media and sport after the Murdochs, who testified for three hours.
In her testimony, Brooks denied ever paying a bribe to a police officer or authorizing such a payment. "In my experience of dealing with the police, the information they give newspapers comes free of charge," she said.
In response to questions, she said, "Things went badly at the News of the World, and we're trying to set it right."
In addition to bringing down power players in Britain's media elite, the revelations of rampant hacking have plunged Prime Minister David Cameron into a political crisis over his ties to tainted News Corp. figures.
Murdoch told the lawmakers he decided to close the News of the World after the scandal exploded two weeks ago with the revelation that the 168-year-old tabloid had hacked into the phone of a young girl abducted and killed in 2003, interfering with the investigation.
"We were ashamed of what had happened. We had broken our trust with our readers," Murdoch said. Later, he added: "I would like all the victims of phone hacking to know how deeply sorry I am . . . for the horrible invasions into their lives. . . . I intend to work tirelessly to merit their forgiveness."
Brooks said the hacking of the girl's phone "is abhorrent to me as it is to everyone in this room."
James Murdoch said at the start of the hearing that hacking by the tabloid was "a matter of great regret of mine, my father's and everyone at News Corporation. These actions do not live up to the standards that our companies aspire to."
Rupert Murdoch then placed his hand on his son's arm and interrupted him. "I just want to add one sentence," he said. "This is the most humble day of my life."
At a separate hearing Tuesday, the House of Commons' home affairs committee grilled the former Scotland Yard chief, Sir Paul Stephenson, and other top police officials who have been implicated in the scandal.
Stephenson, who quit as London's top cop because of the scandal, sought to dispel widespread impressions that he had impugned Cameron during his resignation speech on Sunday. Stephenson also faced tough questions about a personal appeal he made to the Guardian newspaper in 2009, in which he questioned the accuracy of their stories that hacking at News of the World was widespread.
Stephenson insisted that he was simply relaying information conveyed to him by his assistant commissioner, John Yates, who resigned his post Monday and also testified Tuesday.