So here’s the moment that Rupert Murdoch was attacked with a pie (a plate of shaving foam) during his appearance at the House of Commons Culture Select Committee today, with his son James (photo via Twitter — click to enlarge). It was, to my mind, the only exciting moment in a frustrating day in which the elder Murdoch, who is now 80 years old, began by appearing — or genuinely being — bewildered, and out of touch with the running of his vast media empire, while, throughout, his son James appeared thoroughly cold and unmoved, even when apologizing for the activities of the News of the World’s phone-hackers.
I have no idea whether Rupert Murdoch’s confused state was genuine or feigned, although it was noticeable that he gained composure as the hearing wore on, and began showing signs of his evident charisma. In the beginning, however, he either honestly confessed that he wasn’t really on top of the activities of his organization, or he produced a winning theatrical performance.
His blurted apology early on, interrupting his son to say, “This is the most humble day of my life,” was obviously aimed at the headlines, but it was horribly clumsy. As the Guardian’s Julian Glover asked on Twitter, “Can someone who’s worked with Rupert in private tell us if he is always like this? Or is it just for special moments of public catastrophe?” Glover’s colleague Dan Sabbagh asked whether it would backfire on Murdoch Sr. when it came to the opinions of shareholders (in America in particular) about his ability to remain in charge of his company. “The great old man of newspapers looked hopelessly out of touch,” he said. “Who knows what a News Corp[oration] shareholder would have thought?”
If anything came out of this mishmash of robotic contrition from James Murdoch, and his father’s confusion, it was that, despite repeated attempts to keep their complicity in the phone-hacking scandal at bay, both Rupert and James Murdoch were obliged to concede that News International had paid the legal fees of Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator at the heart of the phone-hacking scandal, who was paid by the News of the World to hack into voicemail messages and was jailed for six months in 2007. It was the revelations that Mulcaire had hacked into the phone of murder victim Milly Dowler that triggered the full-blown scandal two weeks ago that, until then, the Murdochs had been keeping under control.
As the Guardian described it, James Murdoch “repeatedly told MPs he was ‘as surprised as you are’ when he discovered ‘certain legal fees were paid to Mr Mulcaire’ by News International,” although he added that “the legal advice he was given was that it was ‘customary to pay co-defendants’ legal fees’ in civil cases such as the numerous ones the company is facing over phone-hacking.”
Paul Farrelly MP then asked James Murdoch whether News International “should stop contributing to Mulcaire’s legal fees,” to which the younger Murdoch replied, “I would like to do that. I don’t know the status of what we are doing now or what his contract was.” Asked the same question, Rupert Murdoch replied, “Provided we are not in breach of a legal contract, yes.”
I leave it to readers to decide whether or not it is plausible that neither Rupert nor James Murdoch knew the full story about the legal defence of Glenn Mulcaire, but it was one of the few moments on Tuesday afternoon that MPs got close to wounding James Murdoch, even though his father came out of the hearing with serious questions being asked about his authority and competence.
Throughout the nearly three hours of questioning, Tom Watson MP got Rupert Murdoch to state that he was not aware that former News International CEO Rebekah Brooks admitted to a Commons Select Committee in 2003 that journalists had paid police for information, excusing himself on the basis that he was too busy. “I didn’t know of it,” he said. “This is not an excuse. Maybe it’s an explanation of my laxity. The News of the World is less than 1% of this company, it [News Corporation] employs 53,000 people around the world.”
He also said he had “never heard” of the News of the World’s former chief reporter, Neville Thurlbeck, who was arrested and questioned earlier this year in connection with phone-hacking in the case of Max Mosley (in 2008), and was not aware that, in 2009, the Culture Select Committee had accused News International executives of “collective amnesia” about the culture of phone-hacking at the News of the World. In one of the moments that appeared to find him most out-of-touch, he told the Committee, “You’re really not saying amnesia, you’re really saying lying.”
The elder Murdoch also said that he had not been “informed about out-of court payments sanctioned by his son James to settle phone-hacking cases involving Gordon Taylor and PR consultant Max Clifford,” as the Guardian described it. He added that he had “never heard” of Gordon Taylor, the CEO of the Professional Footballers’ Association (the PFA), even though he was paid £700,000 in an out-of-court settlement, which is a vast amount for a case involving a breach of privacy (and Clifford, in turn, was paid more than £1 million in March 2010).
At this point, Rupert’s son interjected, explaining that his father “had only become aware of the payments after they were made public by a newspaper (the Guardian), and stating that the level of the payments was “below the approval thresholds that would have to go to my father as chairman and chief executive of a global company.”
To my mind, this line of questioning, regarding levels of responsibility within News Corporation, was not adequately followed up, allowing the Murdochs further opportunities for evasion. In the end, it appeared to have been far too easy for the two men to waltz out of the House of Commons essentially untouched — except for the pie. After all, the Murdochs’ evasions must be set against comments by the late Sean Hoare, the former News International showbiz reporter who died yesterday, that, when it came to phone-hacking, “Everyone was doing it.” This was obviously true, as “there were 4,000 possible victims of phone-hacking listed in the pages of private eye Glenn Muclaire’s notebooks,” according to Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers, who is running Operation Weeting, the Metropolitan Police’s investigations into the phone-hacking scandal.
4,000 cases of phone-hacking, and yet neither Rupert Murdoch nor his son saw fit to ask where the News of the World’s stories were coming from? They — or just James Murdoch, if Rupert really is losing his grip — must genuinely think we’re stupid if that’s supposed to be plausible.