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.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in June 2011, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
On Facebook, Li Lightfoot wrote:
Tsk. Tsk. Tsk.
Ann Alexander wrote:
You make me laugh, Andy.
Aaron Ben Acer Quinn wrote:
this gonna be headlined – “foam hacking scandal” :-))
Allison Lee-Clay wrote:
Headlines indeed, “poor Uncle Junior Soprano…”
Ghaliyaa Haq wrote:
Thanks, everyone. I’m glad I make you laugh, Ann. We need to be able to have a chuckle when so much of our lives appears to be dictated by power-crazed individuals.
And Aaron, yes — foam-hacking scandal, indeed!
Ghaliyaa Haq wrote:
I really haven’t been following this at all.. I wish I had, now!
Kristin Higgins wrote:
just as well it was shaving foam because a real pie would have been a waste, can you believe that inquiry today, what a farce father and son giving it the large sympathy vote and as for those two cops well a blind man would have smelt those lies out
John Burgan wrote:
Pretty lame intervention, actually – just gives Murdoch a golden opportunity to play the victim. The Sun, which has been assiduously keeping the story off the front page, now splashes “assault” all over their website.
Thank you, my friends. Ghaliyaa, I aim to provide a concise summary of what’s going on, so welcome to this latest sideline, where I grab a little break from Guantanamo and torture. And John, I agree that any distraction will overwhelm the bigger story, but I was just about nodding off when the pie hit and woke me up — and anyway, I should be honest and admit that I always love a good pieing.
Sarah Hashim wrote:
Reminds me of Tiswas….Chris Tarrant wouldnt have missed!
Thanks, Sarah. Ah yes, back in the day!
Cannot follow this on TV, but reading your account Andy, reminds me of one of the few TV serials I have ever seen with reasonable frequency (except for Peyton Place, the innocent prototype from by-gone times when you still wore diapers) The Bold and the Beautiful.
And it is truly shocking how this real-life soap resembles the TV one, minus any redeeming factors that the Carringtons may have had. All we need now, is a glimpse of the family crisis meeting in the Murdoch mansion to make the analogy complete. The patriarch going senile, the unscupulous icy son, the flaming female factor.
I suppose the protagonists of this disgusting soap were indeed convinced that they were the untouchable stars of an indestructible soap bubble which developed smoothly according to their home made scenario. For years, they have been merrily collecting politicians like Linda Evans collected shoulder-padded outfits. Sheer Hubris.
Until the bubble broke and by Jove, does that feel good! Even if getting them and their political protectors permanently demoted is not yet won by far, this beginning sure feels good! There still is hope!
Dejanka Bryant wrote:
Brilliant! Just finished reading it.
Thanks, Dejanka. Glad you enjoyed it. I’m working on some more Guantanamo material now, but will be keeping an eye out on developments.
And Anna, great to hear from you. Yes, there’s much to enjoy, although it was frustrating today watching professional evasion from the son, while Rupert attracted sympathy. I recall when Tony Blair was at the Chilcot inquiry, and realized he wasn’t going to get a hard time, he too relaxed after being initially worried, and I wonder if that’s what happened to Murdoch Sr. today, especially as, like all very powerful people, he isn’t used to having to answer questions from anyone critical. You were saved from hours of having to put up with James Murdoch, though, which really wasn’t pleasant.
Dejanka Bryant wrote:
I didn’t know, David Cameron will make a statement to the Commons today on the phone-hacking scandal. Good articles in the Independent.
Yes, he cut his African trip short — very short — so he could deal with the crisis that he obviously hoped would fade away. Thanks for the links, Dejanka.
Kathleen Bushman wrote:
I not only dugg your article – I twittered it too. I always digg good journalism.
H.p. Albarelli wrote:
what a waste of pie!
I still thought it livened things up, H.P., although I think James Murdoch deserved it far more, for being both slimy and chilling at the same time, whereas Murdoch Sr. is now a dwindling force. Don’t get me wrong, however: I’m not forgiving the father for his many, many sins — like setting up what, historically, has been an unprecedented mouthpiece for a rigged, right-wing take on last 20th century/early 21st century capitalism, and for dumbling down entire populations, stirring up all kinds of hatred, and establishing a lowest common denominator for broadcasting (I simply DO NOT understand the success of Sky — countless channels broadcasting rubbish). And that’s without even mentioning Fox News by name …
H.p. Albarelli wrote:
The entire system in England stinks… I find it laughable when folks from the UK, like comedian Jon Ronson, target things in the US like the UK is totally problem free… it is our open system of government and free press [without the UK trappings] that make it easy for British journalists to come here and exploit stories — yet we never hear one word about MI6 nonsense or British intelligence doings unless it is from sham artists like Gordon Thomas.
I spend a lot of my time criticizing the US government, H.p. I hope I criticize my own stinking useless country enough as well, with our Prime Minister who behaves exactly like a feudal lord, and the peasants doped on selfishness …
Cranston Snord wrote:
on the other hand, it’s possible/likely that this was a “sanctioned” event. how else could he have calmly and easily gotten past a high security perimeter?
and what was the consequence? distraction. instead of all the focus being on the lies they told, wendy got most of the headlines.
I think it shows up security as being lax, Cranston, and I still think it was worth it. I don’t honestly think that the media would have got much beyond the headline that Rupert presented them with — the words “Murdoch” and “humble” on every front page — without the pie distraction. It may all have been a front and all a lie, but I didn’t see any sign that the mainstream was going to push that particular perspective. Pie or not, no one was really asking the public to truly consider how possible it was that a born newspaperman like Rupert, however rickety, wouldn’t have known HOW his stories were generated, and not just what they were about. But there wasn’t any proof yesterday. Just lots of evasion, and false contrition from the robotic James, and the details about Glenn Mulcaire’s legal fees that, although germane, wouldn’t have left an impression on 99 percent of readers or viewers even if they had had it repeatedly spelled out to them.
H.p. Albarelli wrote:
My beef isn’t with you, Andy. It’s with those clowns from the UK like Jon Ronson and Gordon Thomas who peddle nothing but lies to the world.
I know, H.p. I was just checking my credentials!
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Writer, campaigner, investigative journalist and commentator. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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