The biggest surprise for me, at the Murdoch hearings today, was the lack of political theater and crocodile tears of remorse. I was expecting a ceremonial piling-on — a group of politicians all jumping at a very rare opportunity to tell Rupert exactly what they thought of him, with the billionaire mogul just sitting there and taking the insults, reiterating over and over again just how very sorry he was about everything that has happened.
But that’s not how it turned out at all. The politicians didn’t grandstand nearly as much as their US counterparts are wont to do, and instead asked substantive questions. The Murdochs, for their part, spent more time blustering and denying knowledge of key events at key times than they did apologizing.
The defining moment of the hearing, at least until Rupert Murdoch got pied, was when Jim Sheridan asked him a straight question — “Do you accept that ultimately you are responsible for this whole fiasco?” Rupert certainly gave a straight answer: “No.”
The message, repeated ad nauseam from both Rupert and James, was clear: they’re very important people running very large businesses, and they simply didn’t know what was going on far below them in the News Corp. org chart.
I doubt anybody really believes it — not given Murdoch’s longstanding reputation for being a hands-on micromanager where his newspapers are concerned. But in its own way, the Murdochs’ decision to push back against MPs was a show of strength — a clear sign that they were going to fight rather than let this scandal bring them down. Their regular professions of ignorance even with regard to very important questions — whether News Corp. is still paying Glen Mulcaire’s legal fees, for instance — were carefully pitched to come across as stonewalling rather than incompetence. James Murdoch, in particular, were quite impressive in his ability to answer questions at length, in borderline-incomprehensible language. As Dan Sabbagh says, he “had facts, information, and answers so long you couldn’t remember (or care) what the question was.”
So I’m with John Abell on this one: the hearing felt more like the end of the beginning rather than the beginning of the end.
But the Murdochs are by no means out of the wood. For one thing, Rupert Murdoch promised that if he were legally allowed to, he would stop paying Glen Mulcaire’s legal fees. That’s big: Mulcaire has been hiding behind a very expensive wall of lawyers for over four years now, and if that wall is taken away from him, he might well have no choice but to tell all. And more generally, the current police investigation into News International is quite likely to reveal an endemic culture of illegality at the News of the World, if not at other News International papers. Beyond that, there’s the very real possibility that US authorities might find evidence of illegal activity on this side of the pond; that would set off a whole new news circus, complete with calls that Murdoch sell off all his news properties.
Tonight, the Murdochs have survived the battle — won it, even, if you take Wendi Murdoch into account. She was the real breakout star of the day. They stood their ground and admitted nothing; given how badly the hearings could have gone, that counts as a win. If you take their answers at face value, neither of them is remotely qualified to run a large organization. But no one is taking their answers at face value. And as a result Rupert Murdoch is likely to continue to run News Corp for at least until the results of the UK police investigation are made public.Felix Salmon is an Audit contributor. He's also the finance blogger for Reuters; this post can also be found at Reuters.com. Tags: James Murdoch, Murdoch Hacking Scandal, News Corporation, News of the World, Rupert Murdoch