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For nearly 3 hours, the emergency parliament hearing grilled Rupert and James Murdoch on News International’s role in the phone-hacking scandal Tuesday at Westminster, London. The hearing was an important part of what ex-Labour leader Lord Kinnock called a “real assessment of press ownership in the UK.”
The Commons culture, media and sport committee was responsible for the questioning and were prepared to dig deep into the cooperate procedures of the media empire that lead to such gross neglect of basic codes of journalism. Mr. Murdoch started out by saying “this is the most humble day of my life,” but kept his answers otherwise elusive as the hearing went on.
Several crucial questions came up — among them the issue of the top administration’s knowledge of the illegal activity, their financial track record, their vigilance in regard to accountability as well as the oversight of News of the World. Mr. Murdoch seemed frail and as the hearing went on, irritated by the detail and persistence of the committee member’s questions. James Murdoch on the other hand were quick to try explaining the actions and responses of the company in the longest phrases possible, insisting on finishing his trail of thought and elaborate on his father’s brief responses.
Key issues were pointed out during the process. Overall, Mr. Murdoch claimed he did not believe mistakes were made during the handling of the issue. He acknowledged that terrible wrongdoings were carried out and that mistakes were made in the course of the events but that the handling that followed was done with the best of intentions. He also made a point of saying that the News of the World was less than 1% of his company and that he employs people on trust to run his divisions.
Mr. Murdoch also emphasized that the UK greatly benefits from having a competitive press and a transparent society. On the question of public interest and the ethical concerns of investigative techniques, James Murdoch added that breaking the law is a serious matter that should be held accountable. On the question on whether NoW should not have been aware that phone-hacking is a crime, James Murdoch simply stated that he believed the company acted quickly once the problem was discovered.
The atmosphere at the hearing was tense. The Murdochs did their best not to incriminate themselves despite the fact that the nature of the committee was strictly in the interest of the public’s curiosity — in contrast to a court of law, the MPs was trying to extract new information about the circumstances of the allegations for their future report.
Mr. Murdoch reiterated on several occasions that not he nor his son had any part in the illegalities but it was clear that James had been aware of the payments to the police. The real question was the depth of his knowledge
Interestingly enough, Mr. Murdoch opened with an apology despite being denied an opening statement by the chair at the beginning. It is of course not without importance, as Iain Watson of the BBC News noted, that he needed to be summoned by the MPs and did not volunteer to give evidence. The initial apology was even further undermined by the fact that the Murdochs admit they were still financing Glen Mulcaire, the demon hacker who brought them down, making their apologies utterly insincere.
Finally, it seemed preposterous that a man known for his legendary grasp of his empire was painstakingly uninformed when having to answer questions about News of the World. Both men’s lack of knowledge of the paper’s basic structure was absurd and considering that most of the police bribery and phone tapping took place between 2002 and 2009, it is quite unimaginable that the top management were left clueless on the illegal procedures for obtaining news content. Why were questions not asked?
The hearing of Rupert and James Murdoch was conducted respectfully by the committee, albeit a few notes of sarcasm aimed at the duo’s cartoonish ignorance. The BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson blogged from inside the room: “It is hard to equate the man sitting a few feet away from me with the global media mogul feared by political leaders throughout my adult lifetime.” Public responses had also been carried out in a peaceful order with a row of protesters holding up signs shortly before the Murdochs addressed the committee. Peace was only broken for one dramatic moment when a man from the audience suddenly stood up and attempted to throw a paper plate of shaving foam in the face of Rupert Murdoch. The attempt was mostly thwarted – particularly by Mrs. Murdoch who rushed to direct the ‘pie’ at the assailant himself.
The result was ambiguous. MPs from the committee told BBC reporters that they believed the meeting had been ‘a good day’ for parliament and for democracy but so many questions remained unanswered. Murdoch played the part of victim of betrayal very well while his son, eager to make sure he didn’t come off as all-knowing, staled the session the best he could with his negations and tentative descriptions. Will the truth about Rupert Murdoch’s full involvement in the scandal ever see the light of day? Not without tangible evidence. And considering the tight-lipped inner circle of the Murdoch empire, such evidence seem only a fairy godmother away from a fairytale.
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