“Some day there will be billions of smart telephones” — thus spake Yoda of the tribunal, R. Murdoch, on the second day of his testimony to the Leveson inquiry. Some on teh Twitter said the wrinkled billionaire had come to resemble his own “spitting image” puppet. I thought he looked like an enormous foreskin in designer eye wear, but there you go. Murdoch senior spoke slowly, even ponderously throughout much of his second session, almost as if he was trying to run the clock out. But he also resorted to claiming levels of ignorance of his own organisation that beggar belief.
Having claimed that his editors were free to make their own decisions, Murdoch was challenged with comments by former Sun editor David Yelland, who claimed that he had come to see the world “through Murdoch’s eyes” as part of the job. Murdoch replied by noting that Yelland had said he was drunk through much of his time editing the Hun, “which we never knew about”.
Whaaat? The editor of his flagship UK tabloid was pissed on the job — out of the extreme stress, Yelland says — and no one higher up knew about it? Flatly ridiculous. The information would have come up the tree some way. Yelland was dropped in it.
He was not alone. James was next, with Murdoch noting, as regards the News of the World scandal:
“I don’t remember any conversation to be honest with you. I am assuming he kept me up to date to some extent. I delegated the situation to him. He had a lot on his plate, did not report perhaps as often … but we did talk of course.”
Murdoch then claimed he was “misinformed and shielded” from the scandal at News of the World, and that there was a cover-up … from him:
“I do blame one or two people for that who perhaps I shouldn’t name … for all I know they may be arrested. There is no question in my mind maybe even the editor, but certainly beyond that someone, took charge of a cover-up which we were victim to and I regret.”
Later, he said of the original Gordon Taylor settlement that made visible the exposure of News Ltd
“The size seemed incredible. It still does seem incredible … He [James] said I was given a short time, he was given two boxes; which one do you tick? One relatively low, and one infinitely bigger. His advice was to tick the lower one. That’s what happened, he was pretty inexperienced at the time, he had only been there a few months, Mr Myler and Mr [Tom] Crone put it to him.”
He also blamed his law firm, Harbottle and Lewis:
“They were appointed and given a file. It’s argued that they were only given a very specific brief. I’ve got to say that I have not gone through that whole file of emails they were given but I have tasted them and I cannot understand a law firm reading that and not ringing a chief executive of a company and saying, hey, you’ve got some big problems.”
However, there was someone he was willing to protect — Rebekah Brooks. When Brooks was under pressure early in the whole scandal, Murdoch was asked what his priorities were in the whole affair. “This one,” he said pointing to Brooks, a statement he refused to back off from in evidence today. That created one of the funnier moments of the hearing, when Murdoch claimed that he had made the remark after being flustered by the attentions of the paparazzi (the other was when he claimed that his papers didn’t do cross-promotion, and that “I don’t have other business interests”. More sinister was his imperious disdain — veering into befuddlement at times — when he was challenged over News Corp coverage of the Max Mosley case (the formula one supremo caught having a thing with five hookers, falsely labelled as a “Nazi o-gy”). Lead counsel put it to him that News reporters had effectively blackmailed one of the prostitutes in question. Murdoch gave the strong impression that hookers get what they deserve, and it was only when Leveson himself intervened to say that it sounded like blackmail to him, and was an extremely serious allegation, that Murdoch mumbled something about promising to read the Eady report on the matter. He had been too busy earlier, he said. He had been “out of town” when it occurred.
Yet at other times he seemed to imply that the only thing that had let the scandal run on was the non-involvement of one R. Murdoch, noting that:
“I should have gone there and thrown all the damn lawyers out of the place and seen Mr Goodman [royal reporter, the original hacker, subsequently labelled as a ‘rogue reporter’] one on one. He’d been an employee for a long time [I] should have cross-examined him myself … If I’d have found he was telling the truth I would have torn the place apart and we wouldn’t be here today, and that was 2007.”
Yes, a tragedy really. If only News Corp were run by Rupert Murdoch, none of this would have happened.
After the lunch break, Murdoch was given a chance to go into a long frolic about the future of technology and newspapers, whence the “smart telephones” comment came from.
It was only after this long canter, and a bit of chest-thumping from Murdoch as to how his union-busting at Wapping saved UK papers, and how BSkyB satellite service offered people 600 channels, that he encountered anything resembling a challenge. This came from John Hendy, the lawyer for the NUJ who pointed out that News International employees had no protection from a culture of bullying — bullying that was essential to getting the illegally gained stories from phone hacks that kept the paper going.
With this challenge Murdoch became hostile and grumpy, his face setting hard. If people were being bullied, he asked, “why didn’t they just resign?” which gained the riposte from Leveson “perhaps because [they] needed a job”.
Hendy’s questioning revealed much of the substructure beneath the unique corruption and nihilism of News Corp — the evisceration of independent unions in News Corp workplaces at the time of Wapping, and their replacement with Soviet-style “staff associations”, which News ran. Murdoch lamely tried to defend the “staff associations”, which left him trapped, when Hendy pointed out that these associations had been refused certification as independent authorities. Would Murdoch support the idea of a “conscience clause” in journalistic contracts which would ensure that unrepresented journalists would not be sacked for refusing unethical duties? Murdoch prevaricated and then said, “yes, he would support such a clause” — which on the face of it, commits News Corp to an enormous change in business practice.
Did anyone land a killing blow on the old bastard during the two days of evidence? He has denied so much knowledge of everyday management of his empire — including the signing off on the Gordon Taylor settlement, and another settlement with former News journalist Mark Driscoll, for £800,000 for workplace bullying — that it would only take two witnesses to a meeting, another rogue email, to leave him in serious trouble. His pious pitch that he, and senior management were “betrayed” by out-of-control News staff gets him off the hook, but further turns past and present staff against him. Even genuine memory lapse would leave him in a sticky situation.
People often wonder how those engaged in cover-ups can make such stupid errors. One reason is this: evidence giving is itself, by its very structure, a form of magical thinking for those accustomed to power. For many of us, the whole legal process serves to impress on us the serious consequences of falsehood; for the powerful it is a chance to silence the pygmies once and for all. Thus, terrible hubris can be entered into — without the perpetrator being fully aware they have done so. We shall see in weeks to come whether Rupert has put matters to rest, or whether, even now, his next headache is echoing down the smart telephones.