The British press and the phone-hacking scandal

Written on July 20, 2011 by Ángeles Figueroa-Alcorta in Culture & Society, Europe, News

Rupert and James Murdoch before Parliament

“This is the most humble day of my life,” Rupert Murdoch told members of the House of Commons, after the media, culture and sports select committee summoned the global media tycoon before them to explain the phone-hacking, police-bribing, politician-bullying ways of his British press titles. Having established his humility, Mr Murdoch then spent more than two hours telling the MPs that he was—in essence—much too important and busy to have known what his feckless underlings were up to.

Mr Murdoch repeatedly stressed how ashamed and sorry he was that his Sunday tabloid, the News of the Worldhad snooped on the voicemails of a mobile phone belonging to Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old schoolgirl whose abduction and murder became front-page news in 2002. He talked of his father, a great reporter, bequeathing him his first newspaper with instructions to use it for good purposes. At times, especially when struggling to hear questions, he looked all of his 80 years. But again and again his defence rested on the idea that he was simply too grand to know about the ethical lapses in one of his newsrooms. That is probably a shrewd legal strategy, but it is unlikely to help Mr Murdoch much in the court of British public opinion.

It was gripping human theatre, despite the best efforts of many of the assembled committee members to blow their big confrontation, asking open-ended or irrelevant questions (my prize for worst question goes to the MP who asked what sort of coaching the Murdochs had had before their parliamentary appearance).

Some have written that Rupert Murdoch came across as a frail, diminished figure, comparing his appearance to the final moments of the Wizard of Oz. I disagree. Thumping the table with the palm of his hand for emphasis (despite nervous signals from his wife to stop) Mr Murdoch showed flashes of something I can only describe as raw power, notably when any MP seemed about to patronise him.

Thus when an MP suggested employees had kept Mr Murdoch in the dark about the phone-hacking scandal, Mr Murdoch came to life, growling:

Nobody kept me in the dark, I may have been lax in not asking, but [the News of the World] was such a tiny part of our business.

The tabloid represented less than 1% of his company, he explained. He employed 53,000 people round the world. At his side, his son, James Murdoch, took the same line, arguing that at one point a six figure pay-off to a victim of phone-hacking had been too small to need the approval of his father, “as chairman and chief executive of a global company.” Read more…

As published in www.economist.com on July 19, 2011.


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