It was billed as the greatest free show in town. A battle royale (of sorts) that on Tuesday, August 19, pitched Westminster’s finest against a media baron who in the past had tyrannised them. Would Rupert Murdoch, and his heir anointed James, wither to dust under their forensic interrogation? Or would the dynamic duo turn the tables and emerge from the phone hacking scandal with a clean(ish) bill of health?
Not quite! Labour MP Tom Watson and his fellow inquisitors on the Culture, Media & Sport Committee did land the odd punch or two, while the Murdochs’ performance gave News Corp shares a 5% lift when Wall Street opened for business. Maybe it was crazily naive to hope that every question would yield a satisfactory answer, but don’t worry. There’s so much muck in the executive cupboard at the moment that it’ll be a while yet before clan Murdoch will be free of the stench.
They had to pull off the smoke and mirrors routine of a lifetime to steady the nerves of twitchy News Corp investors
A week is a long time in politics and for a corporate behemoth with a major PR problem on its hands seven days is sufficient to start repairing the damage. Because make no mistake the appearance of both Rupert and James Murdoch before a parliamentary select committee, was more about disaster management than a sincere attempt to aid the truth. These two had to pull off the smoke and mirrors routine of a lifetime to steady the nerves of twitchy News Corp investors and haul the company’s battered image off the ropes. The evidence is so overwhelming it blinds!
Rupert Murdoch said he was humbled and sorry for both the phone hacking and the misery it caused. Yet the “S” word was conspicuously absent from his vocabulary in the immediate aftermath of this scandal. Neither did he appear to show that much concern for the victims of this deplorable practice since his declared priority was Rebekah Brookes, the woman who edited the News of the World when Milly Dowler’s phone was illegally accessed!
However five days after the final edition of the News of the World hit the stands the sound of burning rubber from a hand brake U-turn was plainly audible. Hours after Brookes’ resignation as News International CEO, a contrite Rupert Murdoch held a face to face meeting with the Dowler family. Shouldn’t he have spoken to them when the allegations first surfaced? Of course, yet given his rapid mood swing from detachment to remorse, even I couldn’t help wondering which PR professional was spinning away in the background. By the time the Murdochs appeared before the committee, they were more coached than a premier league football team.
Murdoch senior came across as old, doddering and vague about such matters as how his newspapers are run, although memories of his Downing Street visits – albeit via the backdoor – were exceptionally vivid. The terrifying, bullying figure of the past was more like a flaccid bogeyman with a hearing problem, judging by the number of times the panel had to repeat its questions. Doesn’t it therefore follow that an 80-year-old man who might be losing his grip couldn’t possibly be expected to know what was going on in his own company? That’s exactly what his PR spinners wanted us to think and given the prevalence of age related adjectives in the following day’s coverage, they succeeded.
Yet there were a couple of instances when Rupert’s mask of fragility almost slipped from its moorings, notably when he thumped his hand down on the table. Fortunately his wife put a stop to that with a few whispered interventions. Let’s face it table bashing might be enough to bring a board of directors under control but it doesn’t play well with a TV audience whose sympathy you’re trying to win.
Mr Murdoch’s performance was typically spirited, like a captain fighting to maintain control of his ship. There were occasional memory lapses (another symptom of creeping old age perhaps?) and the shifting of blame onto everyone other than himself and his family, carrying with it the inference that he was just as much a victim as those whose phones had been hacked and was perhaps as deserving of our compassion. The idiot who lunged at him with a shaving cream pie actually did him a favour since it provoked an outpouring of sympathy that previously wasn’t there. No wonder his PR crew were grinning like Cheshire cats.
As an example of how to turn the tables on an accuser Rupert Murdoch’s performance was flawless. James didn’t fare too badly either. He was confident, feisty, sure-footed and almost touchingly deferential to his father; the kind of bloke who couldn’t harm a fly let alone preside over a business where phone hacking was rife. Indeed his own father claimed the very abuses that have now laid the business so low occurred before James even got his feet under the table. But James’ feel good glow is sinking faster than his tan as his evidence to the committee is now under attack.
He said he didn’t know about an email which suggested that phone hacking wasn’t just the work of a single “rogue reporter”; yet two former News of the World executives are claiming otherwise. James is standing by his testimony but it still boils down to who you believe. Since I don’t have the money to fight a libel action I won’t be staking a bet, but for some reason I can’t get the image of weasels out of my head!
In the meantime James Murdoch is digging his heels in as chairman of the satellite broadcaster BSkyB, although he does face a crucial board meeting on Thursday, the day before the company is expected to post annual profits of a billion pounds.
They say that money talks so maybe it’s possible that the right amount of the green stuff could yet save his neck.
A week can be a very long time in politics, business and PR!