News Corp. Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch spent more than six hours this week answering questions — or not — in front of the Leveson Inquiry into
“the relationship of the press with the public, police and politicians.” The inquiry was called after revelations of widespread hacking at News of the World led to the tabloid’s closing and heightened scrutiny of News Corp.’s now-tabled controversial bid for BSkyB.
His interrogator Robert Jay was careful, almost ginger at times as he tried to get at News Corps.’ transgressions, perceived, real or accused, and the patriarch’s role. (As a viewer, I occasionally wanted to yell “just pull off the scab; don’t pick at it.”) Jay also has a penchant for assuming and assigning intent or feelings.
Murdoch, whose son James doesn’t have nearly the range, was alternately straightforward, passionate, defensive, assertive, irked, and a tad bemused. Expecting an octogenarian Darth Vader? Murdoch competitor the New York Times picked up last summer’s cartoon comparison: “engagingly modest, self-deprecating, charming and funny, a balding, bespectacled Mr. Magoo lookalike.”
Murdoch is a charming guy. He can be shy in a crowd and instantly authoritative. He’s clearly having fun with his direct-to-consumer Twitter feed — using it for jabs and comments he wants heard but then turning dismissive when people listen. Take this exchange with Jay to open the festivities Wednesday:
Q. Some recent tweets of yours betray a hostile approach to right wingers and toffs. Who were you referring to?
A. That was rather a load — don’t take my tweets too seriously. I think I was really saying that the extremists on both sides were piling in on me.
Twitter is public but it isn’t under oath. Everything Murdoch said on the stand, as well as any written statements, could be actionable if Lord Justice Leveson or others think he has lied. He quickly came under fire from outside the Inquiry, which was convened by Prime Minister David Cameron — with former Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the lead.
At the same time, Murdoch came off — to me, at least — as genuinely sincere in his regrets over phone hacking, particularly the hacking of young murder victim Milly Dowler’s cellphone — although he also took time to mention that some of the Dowler allegations were inaccurate and to try to shield his son James and protege Rebekah Brooks.
He channeled a little early Ali:
I should have gone there and thrown all the damn lawyers out of the place and seen Mr Goodman one-on-one — he’d been an employee for a long time — and cross-examined him myself and made up my mind, maybe rightly, maybe wrongly: was he telling the truth? And if I had come to the conclusion that he was telling the truth, I would have torn the place apart and we wouldn’t be here today. I’m talking 2007. But that’s hindsight, which, of course, is a lot easier than foresight …
And he channeled his inner conspiracist, claiming that unidentified people at now-defunct News of the World deliberately blocked senior News Intl. execs — most notably people named Brooks and Murdoch –from learning that hacking wasn’t the work of Clive Goodman alone:
… There’s no question in my mind that maybe even the editor, but certainly beyond that someone took charge of a cover-up, which we were victim to.
Jay parried, suggesting Murdoch and News Corp. were the ones covering up.
Q. Some might say that all this picture is consistent with one of a desire to cover up rather than a desire to expose. Would you agree with that?
A. Well, people with minds like yours, yes, perhaps.
That clever riposte almost got him into trouble and he quickly walked it back.
LORD JUSTICE LEVESON: Oh, oh.
A. I’m sorry, I take that back. Excuse me.
MR JAY: I’m very thick skinned, Mr Murdoch.
A. You seem to be.
Q. Do not worry one moment.
But Murdoch should be worried about it all.
He is unlikely to face any personal legal jeopardy — he was careful. Brooks already does and James Murdoch might yet. But the hits are going to keep coming. He can be called again, he may face inquiries in the U.S. and the Murdochs and News Corp. are likely to be singed by the Leveson report.
His reputation has taken a huge hit – over hacking and the fallout but also because of his machinations to deny being a powerbroker and the unveiling of the UK version of the smoke-filled room.
This round of testimony is over. The story is not. (The transcript is here.)
News Corp. Chief Digital Officer and Chairman/CEO, Digital Media Group Jon Miller will be appearing at paidContent 2012, May 23 in New York City.