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Murdoch says police inquiries into journalists 'disproportionate'

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

By Costas Pitas

LONDON (Reuters) - Media mogul Rupert Murdoch said the police investigations into alleged criminal activity by journalists at his newspapers in Britain were "disproportionate", according to letters written to British lawmakers.

Lawmakers and police are investigating allegations that Murdoch's staff hacked into the phones of hundreds of people to land scoops, that tens of employees made payments to public officials and that others attempted to pervert the course of justice.

Members of parliament said this month they would recall Murdoch to clarify evidence he gave to them last year after he was secretly recorded in March belittling the police inquiry into the alleged crimes.

In the letters published by Britain's Channel 4 News on Thursday, Murdoch said those comments were "overly emotional".

"I am sure I made overly emotional comments about the MPS (London's Metropolitan Police Service) at the March meeting. But that frustration that drove those comments was real," he said in a letter to the chairman of the parliamentary media committee.

"From my layman's perspective, the police approach to these matters since I met with you had in some respects appeared to be disproportionate."

In a separate letter to lawmaker Keith Vaz, chairman of the home affairs committee, he said: "I have no basis to question the competence of the police, and I and our newspapers respect the work they do."

Britain's parliament broke up for the summer on Thursday, meaning committees are not due to sit again until September, by which time some trials concerning former staff of Murdoch's publications will likely have begun.

No date has yet been set for Murdoch's committee hearing.

Analysts say the recall, while potentially embarrassing, is unlikely to lead to charges against Murdoch.

It could, however, further complicate his business dealings in Britain, where his firm has long wanted to take full control of the pay-TV group BSkyB and where it is still in negotiations with the government over regulation of the press.

The covert recordings aired in July of his comments to a room full of journalists from Britain's top-selling Sun newspaper, including some of the 23 who had been arrested on suspicion of making payments to public officials, appeared to suggest Murdoch would stand by staff if found guilty.

The world's most powerful media tycoon, who heads News Corp and 21st Century Fox, sought to clarify those comments in his letters, stressing he did not endorse illegal behavior.

"I did not intend to suggest that any violations of the law are tolerable or acceptable," he wrote.

Murdoch also said that News UK, which owns British newspapers the Sun and the Times, had supplied half a million documents to police and devoted over 185,000 man hours to help the investigation at a cost of 65 million pounds ($100 million).

In July 2011, Murdoch was forced to close the mass-selling News of the World Sunday paper over the hacking scandal.

(Editing by Alison Williams)

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/thomson-reuters/130719/murdoch-says-police-inquiries-journalists-disproportionate