The Murdochs in the Lion’s Den  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2011

The Murdochs in the Lion’s Den   

Which Rupert will emerge at Tuesday’s Parliament hearing? Mon. July 18, 2011

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


Which Rupert Murdoch will show up?

On Tuesday, the embattled media mogul will appear before Parliament's Culture, Media and Sport Committee, along with son James, deputy COO of Murdoch's News Corp., and Rebekah Brooks, until recently chief executive of News International, which oversees Murdoch's British papers.

It will be the first extended public appearance by the three since a long-dormant phone-hacking scandal exploded, inundating the company.

Committee members will be eager to learn as much as they can about the scope of the phone-hacking scandal and how much these key figures knew about it and when.

They have a particular incentive to dig deep, since twice before they were assured by News Corp. officials that the hacking, which first came to light in 2005, was a rogue operation involving one News of the World reporter.

Now it's clear that the hacking extended to some 4,000 people, ranging from celebrities and members of the royal family to ordinary citizens like Milly Dowler, a missing teenager who later was found murdered, as well as relatives of terrorism victims. And there have been reports that hacking took place at two other Murdoch properties, the upmarket Sunday Times and the tabloid Sun, the country's largest circulation paper.

The members of parliament will also be focusing on hefty cash payments the company made to some of the hacking victims. The payments were accompanied by nondisclosure agreements and are widely regarded as hush money. The payments were overseen by James Murdoch.

"The first reason why we were extremely keen to hear from James Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks was the statement by James Murdoch that he now knows that during our previous inquiry parliament was misled," John Whittingdale, the committee chairman, told Reuters. "That is something we obviously take very seriously. Therefore we will want to know from him in what way exactly we were misled, who it was and how long that it's been known for, and why it's only now that it's becoming public."

It will be fascinating to see how Team Murdoch responds to the grilling. Rupert Murdoch has long been an immensely powerful figure used to getting what he wants. Having to answer probing questions won't be his idea of a good time. This is the first time he has ever appeared before Parliament under such circumstances.

Michael Wolff, Murdoch's biographer, told the Guardian that Murdoch does not exactly excel at public appearances. "He is awful at this sort of stuff," Wolff said. "He is pretty inarticulate, mumbles all the time and is incredibly defensive."

To gear up for the showdown, Murdoch has retained Steven Rubenstein, a New York-based public relations man widely credited with crafting David Letterman's hugely successful response to disclosure of a series of affairs with underlings.

As the scandal has steadily widened and deepened over the past two weeks, Murdoch has tried a variety of strategies. At first he was the ever-confident Mr. Big, sure that everything would be fine. He dramatically shut down the News of the World, phone hacking central. A week later, as the situation worsened and he flew to London to take command, he was still in what-me-worry? mode, grinning and showing support for the embattled Brooks.

Last week, as things went from worse to worser, he brought in the PR firm Edelman to soften his image. He apologized in person to Milly Dowler's family and to everyone else with ads in Britain's national newspapers.

But sometimes Rupert couldn't help being Rupert, as in a dreadful interview he gave to his Wall Street Journal. He said News Corp. had dealt with the crisis "extremely well in every way possible," except for "minor mistakes." He said the damage could be easily repaired. Asked about his mood, he said he was "just getting annoyed. I'll get over it. I'm tired."

Then came today's Wall Street Journal editorial, which minimized the seriousness of the situation and blamed media colleagues for piling on.

That's not an approach likely to play well in Parliament on Tuesday, given that the imbroglio has led to the resignation of Scotland Yard's two top cops; 10 arrests; new government investigations; the closure of a newspaper; and political turmoil so severe that it forced Prime Minister David Cameron to return early from a trip to South Africa to address an emergency session of Parliament on the subject Wednesday.

There was speculation that Brooks, Murdoch's close confidante who resigned from News International Friday and was arrested Sunday, would not appear before the committee. But her attorney said that she would.

One of the members of the committee that will question the Murdochs and Brooks is Labour MP Tom Watson, a longtime Murdoch antagonist. Watson has tried to tamp down expectations for the session, saying there's not likely to be a "killer blow."

Committee chairman Whittingdale stresses that he doesn't want the panel to turn into a "lynch mob." On the other hand, he told BBC TV, "I don't want us to let them off without properly addressing the questions which we have."

###