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Jul 20, 2011

Pity the Murdochs, innocents lost in a world of knaves and fools

The performance of Rupert and James Murdoch before a Commons committee presents News Corp shareholders with a terrible dilemma.


They didn’t know, you see. No one told them. Not that they were kept in the dark, mind, but they weren’t kept informed, either. They weren’t willfully blind, but they do regret that things “weren’t known”. They were as surprised and upset as the rest of us. And their lawyers kept making them do things they wished they didn’t. But they were very sorry. None of it was anything to do with them, but they were definitely very sorry.

Rupert and James Murdoch, strangers in their own company, mystified to discover that someone — they’re not quite sure who — had been doing terrible things and covering it up.

The performances differed, of course. Rupert played the doddery old man, Charles Foster Kane on the blasted heath. His family and entourage looked, rightly, worried whenever he opened his mouth. His incessant banging of the table and his bizarre introductory non sequitur, declaring how humbled he was — a line doubtless hours in rehearsal — seemed liked the actions of a confused nursing home resident. At one stage, he even declared he couldn’t remember his own words uttered mere days before.

James was altogether more corporate. He offered a smoother, better-coached performance, full of endless blather about process, chewing up time asking for questions to be repeated, but insisting that they were good questions, important questions, and he really wanted to answer them. But, sadly, much of the detail wasn’t quite at his fingertips.

Indeed, James never quite admitted that he knew anything about anything. And time and again, he relied on the circular reasoning that because external inquiries gave News International the all-clear, he had no reason to suspect anything was wrong. The only flaw — plainly unmentioned by either Murdoch — was that the company had crippled those external inquiries, including police investigations, by ensuring they never saw the relevant evidence.

They were helped by some soft questioning from the assembled MPs.  The chief parliamentary prosecutor of the scandal, Labour’s Tom Watson, made a withering start. He humiliated Rupert with a barrage of questions about what he knew about major elements of the scandal and kept James, desperate to assist his flailing father, silent. It made for car-crash television, and for a moment Rupert’s Old Fool act looked the real thing, as he sat motionless and silent after each question, staring in alarm at his interrogator between desperate glances at his son.

It was so bad, had it continued, Murdoch might have been out of a job within the hour, but the call was passed to other and lesser questioners.

Some extracted useful information. Conservative Philip Davies, backed up by Labour’s Paul Farrelly, tortuously drew out the critical admission from James that the company was still contributing to the legal bills of Glen Mulcaire, the slime who hacked Milly Dowler’s phone messages.  Conservative Louise Mensch reapplied the pressure after the extraordinary and disgraceful lapse in security that allowed an attack on Murdoch, demanding to know why Rupert wouldn’t take responsibility on the same basis that his deputy Les Hinton had.

Watson returned at the close for a parting shot, making James squirm with the suggestion that he release early phone-hacking litigant Gordon Taylor from his confidentiality obligations. Murdoch ducked and weaved but his answer was plain: no way would he risk allowing Taylor to tell his side of the story. Their former law firm Harbottle and Lewis has asked News International to do the same, and been refused.

The rest of the interrogation was inept or plain eccentric.

Mensch’s questions were as near as the committee got to the central issue of this hearing: whether the performance of the Murdochs before the committee could be believed, or whether it was simply designed to insulate them from responsibility. After all, the performance was based on a long-established technique used by corporate executives under siege in major scandals: memories suddenly fade, documents go missing, and bad things are determined to have happened without anyone being around to take the blame except the unfortunate underlings closest to ground zero.  Challenged over whether they were guilty of “willful blindness”, Rupert rejected it, but the phrase was a pithy summary of exactly what they offered in their own defence.

The performance of Rupert in portraying himself as above virtually all the operations of his company was particularly bizarre.  “I’m not really in touch,” he insisted, raising the question of whether being “in touch” wasn’t a basic requirement of an effective senior executive. But people never told him things — not even major decisions involving millions of pounds, he said. He claimed not to know some of the most significant figures in the scandal, long after their arrest. Forced by Davies to admit he phoned the editor of the News of the World on Saturday evenings, he claimed it was merely to ask “what was happening”, and that he was never told anything of substance in those calls. A bizarre claim from a lifelong newspaper man.

James stuck more closely to the corporate crisis management manual, saying he “couldn’t recall” (the favoured line of senior executives under interrogation), that he didn’t have the details, that it was all before his time. And having being compelled, after extended questioning, to admit that  Mulcaire continues to receive money from News International, he insisted it was merely because lawyers said he should. Challenged to cut Mulcaire free, Rupert was forced to say he would, unless he was “contractually” prevented from doing so. The media Gulliver, alas, tied down by Lilliputian legalisms.

It seems, between not being told anything, not being able to remember anything and being forced by lawyers to do things they didn’t want to do, the Murdochs were the helpless victims of an apparently endless parade of incompetent or malicious underlings. The most Rupert would admit to was “laxity”.

The contrast with Rebekah Brooks, who came on after the Murdochs, was striking. While relying on similar lines of self-acquittal, she actually made an effort to answer MPs’ questions and had the grasp of detail to do so, often at length and under heavy fire. You may not have believed Brooks when she explained how finances were managed and delegated within the company and within mastheads, but the woman had a plausible case and put it strongly. The Murdoch males presented no case at all, except their innocence in a world of knaves and fools.

The Murdochs’ performance might have worked for the purposes of the committee hearings but the dilemma it presents for News Corp shareholders and directors is a difficult one.

Based on Rupert’s performance at the committee, either he is entirely out of touch with his companies, an old man routinely given the mushroom treatment about even major decisions in his company, or he lied systematically and repeatedly to a parliamentary committee about his level of oversight. Is either acceptable for a company that insists it is all about trying to be a paragon of corporate virtue?

As for his son, listening to James’ protestations of poor memory, his carefully coached evasions and endless prattle about process, if that’s their next CEO, shareholders might think long and hard about the merits of dynastic succession. After last night, it’s no wonder Rupert wanted to hang on to Brooks.



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36 thoughts on “Pity the Murdochs, innocents lost in a world of knaves and fools

  1. astory

    “Lachlan never quite admitted that he knew anything about anything..” Because he wasn’t there?

  2. Chris Johnson

    One point from last night stood out for me which hasn’t received much attention was when the question was asked about whether Rupert was aware of, or had investigated, any wrongdoing in other News divisions internationally. Rupert replied no, but he would investigate if needed.

    I was waiting for the reply to Rupert from the questioner, which never came, along the lines that:

    “you’ve sat here and told us for the last two hours that you have been egregiously mislead and/or lied to by senior News Co and News Int. executives, you say you were astounded that staff at the NotW had done such appalling things and you are ashamed and sorry, and yet, you have not yet lifted a finger to inquire as to whether this is a problem, or even a potential problem, in any other of your media assets?”

    I would have loved to see the Murdoch response that that question?

  3. Greg Angelo

    Manuel from Barcelona, (I know nothing!), the waiter from Fawlty Towers could probably get a job at News Corporation possibly even as CEO. He would be an able replacement for Rupert, and surely could not do a worse job.

  4. Bernard Keane

    I have de-Lachlaned. Apologies.


    Watching Mr Burns…er, sorry, Rupert Murdoch on his most ‘humble’ day was near as to surreal as it gets. Power and money, his grist and mill for decades, seemed a long way removed from this bumbler, stumbling to get names right or even recall just who he is. Some feigned, but obviously not all. He is the CEO, but didn’t know anything, or know anyone who did?

    It was bizarre.

    There’s a mother lode of cover-up and hush money and blackmail here, so lets just get out the popcorn, because it’s going to run longer than Harry Potter.

  6. Harvey Tarvydas

    Dr Harvey M Tarvydas

    Quality work BK, excellent stuff.

    They are paid that heavyweight in dollars (too heavy to carry by hand) because (their justification) of the overbearing heavyweight of responsibility that the job makes them bear on their (little weenie/big broad) shoulders.
    The moment the ‘responsibility’ turns up bathed in the tears of others they run off to be tickled naked by all those dollars that they ‘don’t know’ why they were paid.
    All the appropriate intelligent questions that clearly deserve answers are actually a total waste of time in the circumstances only serving ourselves a sense of justice.

    @CHRIS JOHNSON — Posted Wednesday, 20 July 2011 at 2:00 pm
    Good one Chris. Seems like most of the MP’s are not quite too sure how frightened of him to be still and haven’t the balls to think confidently on their feet, maybe just not smart.

  7. klewso

    At one stage there I thought James was starting to channel Rumsfeld “known gnomes etc”.

  8. klewso

    Anyone else – Did they seem “patronising”, in their obfuscation? Or was that just me?

  9. klewso

    But finally – “Gentleman” James Murdoch – a contender for “Crafty” Kev Rudd’s “Supercilious Equivocation Heavy Going Title” ?

  10. Malcolm Street

    I was staggered by that bit about being unable to stop payments to Mulcaire because of some contract. The committee should have leapt on that immediately – WHAT CONTRACT? Why did Mulcaire deserve a contract – was it because he’d threatened to blab? How do we get a copy of it to examine its terms? Or is the whole thing just rubbish?

    Re. Brookes – I didn’t see the TV but looking through the Grauniad coverage this morning there were plenty of comments to the effect that she got it much easier than the Murdochs. One explanation is that because she has been charged they had to limit the scope of their enquiries for legal reasons. However, that doesn’t explain or excuse Mensch throwing her slow balls allowing her to waste time claiming, without evidence, that everyone else was doing it too.

    But to go back to your beginning – I AM SICK TO DEATH OF SENIOR EXECUTIVES NOT TAKING RESPONSIBILITY. The boards should be the ones insisting on answers, but of course company boards are even worse.

  11. Gratton Wilson

    No KLEWSO not just you, I thought so also but now and then they realised that they didn’t look sorrowful and humble enough and jerked themselves back to be shocked, disappointed and betrayed by those they had trusted. Did anyone else notice that Rupert said that he spoke on the telephone NoW seldom, perhaps maybe on Saturday afternoon but Mrs Brooks said she spoke to him on the phone every other day?
    As to him being humbled and let down I think Rupert would have been more believable if he had accompanied his display of sadness with a background of violinis or even a banjo and a fading spotlight.

  12. shaz williams

    Rupert should have carried an ear trumpet and the act would have been complete.

  13. shepherdmarilyn

    I have to say it was the best comedy I have seen in years.

  14. Venise Alstergren

    It was a degrading spectacle by all concerned. The committee had a opportunity to question the Murdochs, to call them to account. Did they attempt to ask some solid questions? The hell they did. This in itself suggests that Murdoch pêre and Murdoch fils still have an awful amount of clout in the corridors of political power.

    All this over-loading of sympathy – not you BERNARD, but one of your colleagues who should know better-for an ‘old and broken man’ is pure bullschite. A mere six months ago this same humbled old man was an arrogant and dictatorial stomper of other people’s fingers; a ruthless capitalist whose regard for the truth was zilch and whose snap of his fingers reduced merely mortal editors to being gutless puppets. We are meant to feel pity for an aged tyrant? My sympathy for Rupert Murdoch equals the sympathy I had for Slobadan Milõsevíc when he cheated certain defeat by meeting a mysterious death in a prison cell before the war crimes trial began.

    As for the cream/shaving cream pie. What utter tripe. If this wasn’t a put up job then nothing was. Didn’t anyone ask themselves how the perps got past all the security, which must have been severe? What better way to elicit public sympathy than by having Rupert as a victim of mysterious forces?

    All in all a piece of theatre full of glitzy performances, devoid of meaningful pressure to ask the truly relevant questions, and as GREG ANGELO put it “”Manuel from Barcelona, (I know nothing!), the waiter from Fawlty Towers could probably get a job at News Corporation possibly even as CEO. “”

  15. Chess C

    5 stars. This is the best write-up of the Murdochs’ performance (in the theatrical sense of the word) I’ve seen by far. Thanks Bernard.

  16. Peter Fuller

    You’d made the correction (identified by ASTORY) by the time I read your piece. However perhaps you weren’t so wide of the mark in attributing the stratagem to Lachlan, given his performance at Jodee Rich’s trial.

  17. greenfiend

    There was a line of questioning that seemed worthy of being followed through. News of the world were making illegal payments to police and paying PIs to hack into phones. How did they make these payments? Surely the money for this would have been provided by News Intl, which they would have claimed as expenses when filing their tax docs.

    I’m pretty sure it is illegal for a publicly listed company to pay for illegal activities, and then claim them as a business expense. Perhaps a complete tax audit of all News Intl’s activities for the past 7 years is in order, with a view to uncover these payments.

    Where is Eliot Ness when you need him?

  18. Gratton Wilson

    “You’ve all done very well” as said by the young Mr Grace encouraging the servants who kept the money rolling in.

  19. AR

    BK – another dramatis personae error, it was Mudorc fils not pere who offered to look into ending payment of Mulcaire’s legal expenses, depending on the STFU agreement previously emolumented.
    Otherwise I think you were too kind to Becky Wade-Brooks – why do you imagine she proffered herself for arrest, after noon, on a slow, summer Sunday to a suburban London copshop?

  20. klewso

    But what about the “interesting friends” Cameron keeps?
    Birthdays and Christmas with “sponsors”.
    Coulson fresh from Limited News (wages “subsidised”?), and his friend Neil Wallis “advising” him “during the election”?
    Makes you wonder just how close the whole “arrangement” is? An “internal direct line to the boss”?

  21. zut alors

    Yes, Klewso, I thought them patronising – and James mixed in a dose of Uriah Heap as part of his charm offensive. All that ‘respectfully, Sir,’ stuff was making me gag.

    One of Murdoch Snr’s problems was failure to hear many of the questions – which made him appear more frail than one suspects he is. At 80 he’s probably going a tad deaf and he struggled to hear from as early as the very first question.

    The Murdochs and Brooks aren’t out of the woods – the trials of their former underlings should shine light in some dark (and ‘forgotten’?) places. Remember the old line, ‘when thieves fall out…’

  22. Stephen

    Heck, I don’t see why Rupert can’t stay in charge till Grace’n’Chloe are old enough to take over the company, he’ll only be 103 or something. But d’you think he dyes the spots on top of his head?

  23. john2066

    What Venise said at 4.45 above. Spot on.

  24. Moira Smith

    Hi Bernard, a few commentators today have made reference to Lear but yours: “Charles Foster Kane on the blasted heath” is by far the best.

  25. jeebus

    Rupert’s men have met with the current Prime Minister of England 26 times over the last year. Are we honestly expected to believe that he would delegate all dealings with a Prime Minister to underlings while he floats off to more important matters?

    Not bloody likely.

    As arrogant as he is, even the leader of the world’s sixth largest economy is not beneath his careful attention. It’s quite clear that News is run like a military dictatorship, where hierarchy is not questioned and everybody jumps to the requests of the sociopaths he puts in charge of each branch. Whether it’s Brooks, Ailles or Hartigan, it’s clear that ruthlessness and ideological purity are the qualities he has hewn into News Inc from the top down.

    175 of his editors from around the world supported the Iraq invasion despite a lack of popular support in the countries they operated. At the 2007 DAVOS meeting, Rupert gloated with a laugh that yes, he did try to shape the agenda to kick off the Iraq war.

    It’s vile that a media baron should carry more influence than a cabinet member, let alone a head of state. To centralise such power within an unelected individual is corrosive to the very principle of a democratic society.

    It’s time for leaders both abroad and in Australia to do something about his domination of the media.

  26. DodgyKnees

    In case you missed it, the Guardian’s Culture section reported:


  27. News Blues

    ***it’s time for leaders both abroad and in Australia to do something about his domination of the media.***

    Yes, there is a danger here of complacency and accepting the whole charade as normal corporate culture. Lest we forget that the Murdoch newspapers were complicit with illegal invasions of foreign nations, causing untold atrocities against innocent men, women and children. They were the Pied Pipers who whistled the tune for the industrial military complex to cause mayhem and destruction of bone, flesh and blood…and on their head is the blood Abel all over again.

  28. Boo

    I think Venise is right on the money concerning the Murdochs remaining (or feared return to?) clout in the corridors of political power. We will have to wait for the heavy lifting to be done by the judicial enquiry.

    The concern I have with this saga are that statements by Murdoch snr to the effect that they will emerge stronger. The reality is that one does not have to hack phones and bribe police to subvert democracy. An all powerful media with no interest in reliance on facts, truth or impartiality will do all the subverting a tyrant could desire. And it seems Rupert is banking on retaining that power, and the MP’s seem to be all to well aware of it.

    Endure the fallout limiting PR exercises, and then get on with business as usual. Get on with running a global digital media empire not inconvenienced by petty domestic politics and legal trivialities. Useful idiots our political leaders.

  29. Venise Alstergren


    JOHN 2066:

    BOO: I don’t know how strong your stomachs are but you should read the editorial in today’s Herald Sun. (Vic) It is quite simply the most vile, bum-sucking rant of distilled hypocrisy I’ve ever read. I imagine it was written by John Hartigan. He completely disregards the central truth about Rupert’s Oz newspapers and visual media.

    Why would Rupert Murdoch wish to tell his Oz editors what to write when they all self-censor themselves in the first place?

    Also, for those dim-wits in the ‘burbs who use Murdoch’s (Pêre’s) deafness as an excuse to feel sorry for this lying octogenarian—–Is someone wishing to tell me that one of the richest men on the planet can’t afford a hearing aid?

    Finally, I thought it was obvious that Rupert Murdoch had every intention of remaining as CEO. If he does so, watch out James Murdoch!

  30. A. N. Onymus

    To repeat / amend what I posted at Stephen Mayne’s Crikey article of 19th July, when I watched James Murdoch, I thought to myself, “One would think he wanted to become a politician, the way he’s (not) answering the questions.”

    I also wondered whether his attentiveness towards Rupert was the concern of a son about his father or a concern about whether his father would say something he shouldn’t. The latter assumes that Rupert was not striving for a BAFTA award.

    My immediate reaction to Rupert’s “most humble day of my life” opening comment was that a day isn’t humble, a person is. My next thought was that using “most” (presumably intended to be about himself rather than the day) meant that there had to be other times when he was humble for “most” to qualify. Therefore, on both counts his opening remark was nonsensical.

  31. Frank Campbell

    Jeebus: “Rupert’s men have met with the current Prime Minister of England 26 times over the last year.”

    Exactly. Political incest is the root of this evil. The evil is the breach of public-private boundaries.

    Cameron, Blair, Brown all know this- so Murdoch always uses the back door.

    Cicero paid with his life for exposing precisely this- corruption is inevitable when the social envelops the political and economic.

    Murdoch’s technique is to create pseudo-familial relations with anyone who might benefit his economic interest. The model is his own family, the world’s largest family company. His loyal lieutenants are de facto family members.

    The socialising (weddings, holidays, boozing, eating, bonking) cements Murdoch’s extended faux-kinship network.

    We see the same symptoms in the Australian political class (Canberra, media, lobbyists).

    Solution? The personal has to be excluded from public life. Fraternisation breeds instant conflict of interest. Corruption follows inevitably. Therefore fraternisation should be eschewed in principle. Fraternisation is inherently scandalous.

  32. Boo


    I guess these things are the measure of character. Or the total lack of it. I’m speculating that this is all an attempt to limit the fallout to the scandal, and vent the publics anger (and political will) at this as well. I bear no ill will against the author, society always has such people. Pity we are so good at giving the lowest common denominator such exposure, and our better souls bugger all. Rupert knows this all to well.

    Seems that the likes of Rupert often come undone when there are an unfortunate confluence of events that they cannot slime their way out of. That’s why I’m hoping for the FBI to uncover some dirt on the bloke and make it global.

    The next test will be to see if people really are as stupid and apathetic as the Murdochs think we are.

  33. Venise Alstergren

    BOO: It’s the people in the ‘burbs who read his publications, not the inhabitants of Crikey. Unfortunately. 🙂

  34. Boo


    I suspect it was Ruperts type that used to feed off the ignorant uneducated masses, now the mis-informed apethetic masses in Oz. But once those people have made up their minds Ruperts a crook – a perception thats widely held but not questioned – his shoes will be set in concrete as the masses move on to the next sound byte. I live in hope that what gave rise to the parasite will be his great undoing. With Ms Brooks et al, I’m half surprised at the lack of references to Shakespeare. We have our troublesome priest …

  35. Venise Alstergren

    BOO: Lear is the obvious Shakespearian play(ful) analogy, with the redhead playing Regan, and James Murdoch playing Goneril. Only, in the case of the Murdoch’s there doesn’t appear to be anyone decent enough to play Cordelia.

    IMHO the more the ‘great unwashed’ are faced with Rupert Murdoch’s evil, the more he will become a hero. It’s James who, justifiably, will be hung out to dry.

  36. Venise Alstergren

    BOO: Don’t forget the Murdoch’s work on the sound principle of “Nobody ever went broke under-estimating public thought, taste and infinite desire to read about the celebrity circus.

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