In the Murdochs’ big showdown against the Culture, Media & Sport Committee, it was the Committee which ended up losing on points. But the biggest loser in the fallout from the phone-hacking scandal will be Ed Miliband, writes Christian Walker.
Rupert and James Murdoch’s appearance before the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee had all the trappings of a prize fight in Las Vegas (albeit with Andrew Neil taking the place of Don King). The narrative in the run-up to their appearance sought to paint Murdoch as a monarchical tyrant; an unrepentant titan of the media industry, ill-served by the corporate lackeys who advise him, and finally getting his comeuppance; something which every single person in the country supports and avidly follows. Whilst the aftermath of the hearing attempted to spin the confrontation into a score-draw, the fact of the matter is that the Murdochs completely routed the MPs arrayed before them, some of whom had spent decades preparing for the day they might get to question Rupert Murdoch on his personal propriety.
Whilst you would not know it from the pre-fight narrative, the Committee’s chances of scoring points were never that good. There is firstly the small matter of glaring hypocrisy; this is the same Committee – the actual, exact same committee – before which, in 2003, Rebekah Wade (now Brooks) declared her newspaper’s policy of illegally paying police officers for information. Neither the government, nor the Committee as a whole, supported action against either Wade personally, her newspaper specifically, or News International more generally. And it is this Committee which now seeks to decry News Corporation for failing to act when presented with clear legal wrongdoing. One might ask, if the organs of the state do not see fit to act when presented with clear legal wrongdoing, why should one expect a private enterprise to do so?
There is also the small issue that, in their giddy excitement of at last being of interest to anyone outside the Westminster Bubble, the Committee had called the wrong witnesses. What was first a request to appear, but with the expectation that the request would be politely refused, turned into a threat of being summoned. Whilst this looked good in the anti-Murdoch press, it created the problem of having to come up with relevant questions to ask an 80 year old man who lived in New York, regarding the minutia of his London subsidiary.
It never did come up with relevant questions. The Committee set the tone by refusing to allow either man to give an opening statement, as is tradition. During its questioning, the Committee was evidently displeased that Rupert Murdoch, in his capacity as Group Chairman of a global corporation, could not comment on the tax status of payments made by the News of the World. His decision to not personally oversee personnel issues at the News of the World from his office in New York, is apparently another issue of much consternation and concern. This man has no control over his own corporation!
No, he does not. The whole point of subsidiaries – such as News International’s status in relation to News Corporation – is that they run themselves as largely self-contained enterprises. This is to limit liabilities, and to enable a global firm to function – to presume that Rupert Murdoch is familiar, on a day-to-day basis, with the goings on of his British subsidiary is to presume that he is similarly familiar with the goings on of the hundreds of other subsidiaries of News Corp – something which is clearly ridiculous. One wonders if Committee members knew this prior to the hearing; if they did, then their questioning was highly cynical. If they didn’t, they lack even the most basic understanding of what Rupert Murdoch’s job actually is. Neither option is particularly complimentary.
Rupert Murdoch, in his role as head of a global firm, is simply the wrong person to explain why the News of the World hacked into the phones of murder victims. Questions concerning the stock price of News Corp, his attempt to take full control of BskyB, or his personal relationship with Prime Ministers – those questions, he can answer, because they are issues that are relevant to his job.
But of course, to presume that the witnesses called by the Committee were chosen for their ability to answer the questions put to them is to presume that the hearing had anything to do with answering questions in the first place – when it clearly didn’t. This was made clear when Mr. Watson asked Murdoch senior ‘what did News International do subsequent to the arrests of Clive Goodman’ and, with the elder Murdoch unable to answer and the younger instead going to answer the stated question, he was verbally prevented from doing so. This something I have never seen before; a person before the Committee to give evidence, being told to stop talking because the Committee would rather hear the person next to them say they don’t know the answer, rather then hear the answer from someone else.
But all this shows is how Mr. Watson had no interest in hearing answers which could help explain what led to News Corp employees listening to the voicemails of murder victims. He, like the majority of the Committee, was more interested in using their positions on the committee to satisfy their own vindictive urges against the ‘right-wing’ organisation which revelled in MPs’ systemic abuse of taxpayers money, and was now seemingly on the back foot, mired in a scandal of equal proportions.
So with the Committee’s poor performance considered, let’s consider the individuals against them. And I’m going to say it, because it’s obvious to all those who watched the proceedings, although you wouldn’t know it from reading the Guardian or watching BBC News: James Murdoch did well. He came across as forthcoming and knowledgeable, whilst cheerily withholding information that could damage his father’s company. He answered every question. There was no heated confrontation over his responses. And the Committee’s own view at the end of the hearing? It didn’t know much more than it did before the Murdoch’s appeared. That means James Murdoch won.
Even Rupert Murdoch – the supposedly confused old man, out of touch with his own company (if you were to believe the post-match spin), did well. He, too, didn’t answer any questions – but he could afford to be a lot more blunt about it, because his role in the firm meant he wouldn’t be expected to. The considered view of Watson’s ‘forensic’ questioning is that it was incisive, and cut to the heart of Murdoch’s dysfunctional corporation; I think I must have watched a different Committee. Murdoch’s responses were confused, because they are not the questions one asks of a Group Chairman. Asking Rupert Murdoch if he is aware private investigators, paid by particular News International papers, track cars in addition to tracking phones, is akin to asking the Prime Minister what happened to the £5.22 in petty cash stolen from the Oldham Jobcentre Plus office. Meanwhile, the reclusive titan of the British media, painted as some sort of all-seeing, all-knowing Sauron, now appears human; I wonder how many people had ever heard Rupert Murdoch’s voice before his appearance?
And of course, the throwing of a pie by a failed comedian who, given his portly stature, would probably be a considered authority on all sorts of pies, only further strengthened this victory. Nick Robinson reported on the Six O’Clock News how ‘someone’ told him they had overheard ‘someone’ speaking to James Murdoch, suggesting that the incident would look good for News International. Whether such a conversation ever took place, I don’t know, but it is certainly correct.
And News Corporation has also won because, now the Murdoch’s have made their appearance, the public are getting tired of this issue. Attempts by the left to migrate the issue from hacking of murder victims phones – the thing which the public cares greatly about – to issues of David Cameron’s hiring of News International hacks are failing.
Indeed, the only loser from all this is Ed Miliband. Because it is Ed Miliband who has declared war on Rupert Murdoch; who has decided to burn all his bridges with that organisation. And whilst this has secured his position within his own party and, a week ago, appeared to be a good decision, with News International imploding – a week is a long time in politics. It has been seriously mooted as a possibility that Murdoch will sell his papers in the UK. This will not happen. One of the most telling exchanges from the duo at their Committee hearing was when they were asked whether they intended to launch a Sunday paper to replace the News of the World. The transcript records James Murdoch initially saying, “no, there are no-” before he is interrupted by his father (what the written transcript doesn’t record is the elder Murdoch putting his hand on the arm of the younger to shut him up), who states, “we have made no decision on that.”
News International is not going anywhere, and Ed Miliband is now their avowed enemy. Yesterday was a bad day for Ed Miliband.
To read Christian Walker’s other articles visit Christian Walker’s Politics On Toast blog. This article is (C) Politics on Toast and Christian Walker.