What an incredible day yesterday was. Yes, a famine was being declared in parts of Somalia but here in the UK news junkies are perhaps not ashamed to admit being obsessed with live coverage of Rupert and James Murdoch appearing before the Commons culture, media and sport select committee. Murdoch senior is chairman and ceo of News Corp and his son is his deputy and they are arguably the biggest media moguls on the planet. We have never heard them speak, side by side, for so long in public. It was truly fascinating.
Which meant the telly or some form of live streaming was on somewhere in the house from 2.30pm until after 7pm when Rebekah Brooks, former editor of the News of the World and The Sun and former chief executive of News Corp’s UK newspaper division News International, finished giving evidence to the same select committee.
There were the headlines: James Murdoch admitting News Corp had paid legal fees for the investigator Glen Mulcaire who hacked into phones for The News of the World; Murdoch grandstanding with a line about this being “the most humble day” of his life, before being rudely hit in the face with a plate of shaving foam from a protestor. There were also countless, repeated denials from Rupert, James and, later, Rebekah that they knew anything about the illegal interception of mobile voicemail messages including those of murdered teenager Milly Dowler. They all found out about Dowler’s phone interception two weeks ago, they said, when The Guardian broke the story.
Brooks said yes, she was on holiday at one point when Milly Dowler’s disappearance was in the news but that was “irrelevant” as she was editor of The News of the World at the time. Perhaps that is why MPs didn’t pursue a question suggested by Nick Davies, the Guardian journalist who has done so much to cover the phone hacking story. Davies suggested MPs say this: “When you were editor of the NoW, you published a story which referred to a message left by a recruitment agency on the voicemail of Milly Dowler, the 13-year-old schoolgirl, who was then missing without explanation. Did you read that story? Did it occur to you to question how your reporter could have known about this message?”
Many of the questions the MPs did put were batted away as being more appropriate to the ongoing police investigation into wrongdoing at the NoW; or the Murdochs, James in particular, said things had been done on the basis of legal advice News Corp was being given at the time; or James said he wasn’t at the company in 2007 when NoW reporter Clive Goodman was sentenced to four months for intercepting voice messages.
Then there were the finer points of the drama. James Murdoch saying at the outset that he would like to submit a written statement to the committee “if it pleases you” as he worked out the protocol of the occasion. Rupert Murdoch saying his son had just asked him to stop gesticulating as he temporarily stopped patting the desk as he spoke. He may be old but Murdoch Sr seems used to thumping a desk as he speaks. All TV viewers were impressed by Wendi Deng’s dual role as wife and bodyguard, landing an open slap on the perpetrator of the foam pie. She had carefully ushered Rupert into the chair directly in front of her at the beginning of the session. It’s amazing to see Murdoch family dynamics on show like this.
I’m left with a sense of how far the Murdoch myth has got away from the reality. Rupert Murdoch is a very successful media businessman. He genuinely loves newspapers. He rings the editor of the Sunday Times almost every Saturday night, he said. He rang the editor of the NoW less often, about once a month. He doesn’t have a grasp of the day to day detail of how his newspapers get put together and nor should he. He is a chairman and ceo; he employs 52,000 people around the world. James Murdoch is a smooth-talking, slightly wall-eyed individual who is good corporately.
But it is precisely because we have heard so little from the Murdochs directly over the years, save for carefully crafted speeches, that politicians and the public have imagined what they like about the Murdochs. That they are ogres. That they have no morals. On the basis of yesterday’s appearance I would say they are simply very, very successful businessmen. They and Rebekah Brooks must be incredibly certain that there is no evidence linking any of them to illegally intercepted voicemails and, without evidence, there need be no admission of guilt.