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28 August 2014 00:48 (South Africa)
Media

What News International executives didn't know, or claim they didn't

  • Theresa Mallinson
  • Media
murdoch hearing

At a UK parliamentary inquiry on Tuesday Rupert and James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks claimed not to have known anything about the phone hacking that took place at News of the World. And when they did act on related matters – such as paying hush money – it seems they didn't bother to tell each other. Whether their denials are plausible is another question. By THERESA MALLINSON.

As Rupert Murdoch, James Murdoch, and Rebekah Brooks faced the House of Commons select committee on media, culture and sport on Tuesday afternoon and evening, many viewers expected fireworks – and for the legendary Murdoch temper to make an appearance. That, bar the odd table thumping, didn't happen. This drama is going to be a slow boiler, and Tuesday's proceedings were only the prologue.

For those not watching the hearings live on television, Twitter was abuzz with updates. Among the many snide 140-character comments there were several pictorial references to The Simpsons' Montgomery Burns, Smithers, and Sideshow Bob (we'll leave you to work out who represented who. Clue: It's not difficult.) But it's a reworking of one of Bart Simpson's stock denials that is most apposite to describe what went down in the parliamentary inquiry. “I didn't do it. I didn't see anybody do it. Don't know anything.”

It's obvious that the Murdochs and Brooks were subjected to some heavy prepping from advisors prior to their appearance. All three of them apologised profusely for the phone hacking and then swiftly switched over to displaying the “collective amnesia” that the very same committee accused News of the World executives of back in 2009. Rupert Murdoch initially played the ageing media baron, emerging from octogenarian doziness to show occasional flashes of irritation. But he came out more forcefully in the end, denying his own culpability and saying he was let down by staff he trusted. For his part, James Murdoch used typical MBA-speak tactics to give long-winded answers that seemed to stick to the script – and didn't say much. Brooks, meanwhile, played the innocent. Just as Murdoch senior claimed to have little idea of what was going on in his own company, she purported to have been largely unaware of the workings of her own newsroom.

Here's a select list of what the trio didn't know.

  • James Murdoch: “I have no knowledge and there is no evidence that I'm aware of that Ms Brooks or Mr Hinton had knowledge of these things.” (These things, being the phone hacking.)
  • Rupert Murdoch had “never heard of” Neville Thurlbeck, the former News of The World chief reporter who's a suspect in the hacking case, and has also been accused of blackmail.
  • Rupert Murdoch denied knowing about the six-figure out-of-court settlements to Gordon Taylor and Max Clifford after they sued the newspaper for phone-hacking.
  • Rupert Murdoch said he'd seen no evidence of hacking into 9/11 victims' phones – although, considering the other evidence he seems to have not known about, this doesn't tell us a lot.
  • James Murdoch did not know who signed off payments to former royal correspondent Clive Goodman or private investigator Glenn Mulcairne.
  • Brooks did not know Mulcairne worked for News of the World until 2006 – after her editorship.
  • Brooks said she had “never knowingly” authorised paying a police officer. 

However, the parties concerned were far from comfortable in disclosing the levels of their ignorance. James Murdoch appeared relatively at ease, but his father was visibly hesitant in answering questions, pausing for far too long before barking out a curt “no” in response to several questions by Labour MP Tom Watson. Murdoch also banged his fist repeatedly on the table, in a display of frustrated impotence. He could bang away all he wanted, but this didn't change the fact that he was not in charge of proceedings. Brooks, for her part, seemed flustered at times. When Watson asked her if Mulcairne would deny he had ever met her (after Brooks had herself denied meeting him), she replied: “I'm sure he would – although I – you know, yes, it's the truth.” Doesn't sound particularly convincing to us.

Photo: Wendi Deng (2nd L) lunges towards a man trying to attack her husband, News Corp Chief Executive and Chairman Rupert Murdoch, during a parliamentary committee hearing on phone hacking at Portcullis House in London July 19, 2011. REUTERS/Parbul TV via Reuters Tv.

The trio can be grateful their appearance before the parliamentary committee was, in many ways, a fairly forgiving trial run.  The Murdochs and Brooks got off lightly this time owing to most of the MPs inept attempts at questioning. The only MP to shine was Watson, who has been on an anti-Murdoch crusade for a while now, and led the questioning in both instances. Watson showed he had done his homework and was quick to press home his points, and insist that Murdoch senior answer questions which he tried to defer to his son.

Significantly, nothing they said is admissible as evidence in court. Until the Metropolitan Police’s Operation Weeting concludes its investigations, the only court they will be tried in is the court of public opinion. Not particularly fair, perhaps – but then again, this is a favourite tactic of their own newspapers.

So far, there's been mixed reaction as to how the three executives fared before the committee. Despite Murdoch's assertion, “This is the most humble day of my life”, he didn't come across as particularly humble. And even given the pie-in-face disruption, he didn't emerge as a sympathetic figure.  When asked why he would not tender his resignation, Murdoch stated: “Because, I feel that people I trusted, I'm not saying who, I don't know what level, have let me down. I think they behaved disgracefully and betrayed the company, and me. It's for them to pay. I think that, frankly, I'm the best person to clear this up.”

Blaming others for mistakes committed at your own company is not an attractive trait and displays a lack of true leadership qualities. And the fact that Murdoch trusted people who betrayed the company calls his judgement into question. Whether he's the “best person to clear this up” is doubtful, especially considering the vast gaps in his knowledge about the affair. 

Throughout the hearing, this lack of knowledge seemed reminiscent of Donald Rumsfeld's 2002 statement: “[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know.” While the Murdochs and Brooks now know more than they did prior to the Guardian's investigative work, their admissions showed that there's still a lot they don't know about what went down. Most worrying for News International – and even News Corporation's – future is the “unknown unknowns”. Already News Corporation's independent shareholders have appointed their own legal team to investigate the phone-hacking scandal and there have been calls for James Murdoch to step down as chairman of BSkyB.

When asked about counsel they'd received before the hearing, James Murdoch said: “We were advised fundamentally to tell the truth… And that's my and my father's intent.” Even assuming that the Murdochs (and Brooks) stuck to this intention, which is one helluva assumption,  they certainly didn't go as far as telling “the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”.

On Wednesday morning the home affairs committee released its report on phone-hacking with the unsurprising finding that News International “deliberately tried to thwart” police investigations into the matter. Peter Clarke, who oversaw the first police investigation, was quoted in the Guardian as saying: “If at any time News International had offered some meaningful co-operation instead of prevarication and what we now know to be lies, we would not be here today.”

Murdoch is sticking to a “judge us by our future, not our past” line. In a memo to News Corp staff on Tuesday night, he wrote: “I want all of you to know that I have the utmost confidence that we will emerge a stronger company. It will take time for us to rebuild trust and confidence, but we are determined to live up to the expectations of our stockholders, customers, colleagues and partners. We are determined to put things right.” It's a task that is growing more difficult by the day. DM


Read more:

  • Behind Rupert and James Murdoch's gloss, a seriously intense defence in Guardian;
  • Full phone-hacking coverage at the Guardian;
  • Murdochs deny that they knew of illegal acts at The New York Times;
  • Rupert Murdoch's global memo to staff at The Telegraph;

Photo: BSkyB Chairman James Murdoch and News Corp Chief Executive and Chairman Rupert Murdoch (R) appear before a parliamentary committee on phone hacking at Portcullis House in London July 19, 2011. At centre rear is Rupert Murdoch's wife Wendi Deng. REUTERS/Parbul TV via Reuters Tv

  • Theresa Mallinson
  • Media


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