Murdoch takes a bow

If the Leveson Inquiries revealed anything, it was that the News Corp. chief's self perceptions make entertaining viewing

Rupert Murdoch finished his two-day testimony before the Leveson Inquiry on Thursday, convened to address the phone-hacking scandal that emanated from and ultimately closed down his News of the World tabloid. Murdoch talked at length there about his own personal anguish at the scandal, his regret he personally did nothing to stop it, and his regret that he did not shut the News of the World “years ago” and replace it with The Sun on Sunday.

And what would have averted this terrible series of highly damaging disclosures about the phone-hacking scandal cover up conducted by his news organization? Rupert Murdoch also had a clear answer to that:

“I should have gone down there and thrown all the damn lawyers out of the place and seen Mr. Goodman one on one.” Clive Goodman was the News of the World royal correspondent, jailed for phone hacking in 2006, who alleged at the time of his arrest that the practice was widespread. Murdoch continued: “If I’d found he was telling the truth, I would have torn the place apart, and we wouldn’t be here today.”

Could have, should have, would have, didn’t. The testimony of Rupert Murdoch during an inquiry into press ethics and the relationship between the paper and the police is nothing if not theater of the highest order. Murdoch’s appearance on the witness stand was both compelling and, like the best theater, convincing up until the moment the curtain fell.

What looked like a “mea culpa” was also littered with broadly distributed blame. (The Guardian has a good round up of all those who drew Murdoch’s fire during his testimony.) Lawyers, errant editors, competitors, and the police all fed into the narrative around which Murdoch constructed his victimization in the affair.

This constructed reality of Rupert Murdoch’s testimony does, however, contain at its heart a gritty grain of truth; despite the enormous corporate structure, the tens of thousands of employees and the wide range of products, at its heart, News Corp. is still an autocracy, with Murdoch at its peak. His declaration that the way to have stopped this scandal was to get involved himself at an early stage is telling in that he almost certainly believes that to be true.

In fact, one of the most riveting aspects of Murdoch’s testimony is that, even where it departs with reality, the unshakeable certainty with which he delivers it speaks to a level of denial or self delusion which is as great as it is necessary given the prevailing circumstances.

Twitter was packed with journalists and others following the testimony, and a benefit of the real-time social Web was that some of the people Murdoch rounded on in his testimony were providing their own commentary. Andrew Neil—the former editor of the Sunday Times, who Murdoch said had become almost a one-man industry “in spreading lies about me”—tweeted as Murdoch spoke, openly questioning his evidence:

What the inquiry ultimately rung from Murdoch was an admission and an apology. But beyond this, very little was illuminated by the entertaining performance. The potential conclusions of the inquiry are viewed with potential trepidation by many in the UK press, imagining it might herald more unwanted regulation. For ethnographers and historians of the industry, however, the inquiry is the most comprehensive collection of testimony and insight about the inner workings of the press ever to be committed to the public record. It is also, by coincidence, a highly entertaining read.

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Emily Bell is Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School. Tags: , ,