For bragging rights, it will be hard for any living lawyer to ever surpass Robert Jay QC. After all, who else could claim to have cross-examined the world’s most powerful man of the past 40 years for about seven hours in front of a television audience exceeding 100 million?
However, Rupert Murdoch’s most effective global critic, biographer Michael Wolff, was none too impressed with Jay’s opening performance at the Leveson inquiry last night, claiming variously that he was “sputtering”, “naive”, “unhelpful”, “petty” and “lame”.
Wolff’s 2008 book, The Man Who Owns The News, remains the most accurate portrait of Murdoch ever produced. However, he sometimes lapses into the easy journalistic world of calling issues as strictly black or white. In complex matters such as a four-hour cross-examination of Rupert’s 44 years of power playing in Britain, there are always shades of grey.
On the flipside, Wolff described Rupert’s performance last night as “riveting, irresistible, heroic and masterful”. Even Piers Akerman, Terry McCrann and Miranda Devine would be embarrassed to write that.
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While Wolff has indeed spent 50 hours interviewing Rupert — more time than any other non-News Corp employee — I sense his criticisms of Jay were partly motivated by professional jealousy.
I was jealous too, especially since Jay has now usurped my position as the person who had spent the most time — about three hours — publicly interrogating the patriarch of the world’s most powerful family.
For mine, Jay did well on the slow-burn approach. He didn’t reduce Rupert to tears or force his instant resignation, but he was forensic in getting him on the record about a wide range of key issues.
Despite an avalanche of claims to the contrary — including from politicians such as Paul Keating, spin doctors such as Alistair Campbell and former News International editors such as Andrew Neil — Rupert repeatedly denied the undeniable when it came to his core business of using media power to impose his ideology on democracies while maximising his family’s wealth.
Despite the irony of insisting that he just wants his papers to tell the truth, Rupert failed to do precisely that when it came to the way he stands over politicians and corrupts the democratic process.
Here was a bloke who thumped the table when insisting that he never asked for any favours out of Tony Blair and simultaneously declared he wasn’t subtle, wouldn’t bite his tongue and took personal responsibility for every editorial in The Sun, the biggest selling paper in the English speaking world.
Therefore, Rupert may not have directly asked Blair for a favour while lunching at 10 Downing Street, but he did so far more brazenly and effectively by printing and distributing 3 million copies of his written demands every day of the week.
Rupert told Jay last night that Kelvin McKenzie’s 1992 election day splash in The Sun — “If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights” — was “absolutely brilliant”.
What more evidence do you need that Rupert openly stands over politicians?
“Do what I say, or cop this,” is the Murdoch way and that is what the British political class will soon call time on.
His minions even hired private investigators to tail every single member of a parliamentary committee which dared criticise this racket.
Despite Wolff’s claim that “Robert Jay has no idea how Rupert runs his business”, I thought he was well across his modus operandi.
However, Jay could always do better and was wise in cutting short day one to free up more time to prepare for a second three-hour burst tonight.
With round two he will have the benefit of seeing the reaction to day one — including denials such as this one issued by Gordon Brown — plus another 19 hours of preparation time and analysis for his team of researchers after Rupert’s opening dump.
In terms of tactical advice, Jay shouldn’t laugh at Rupert’s jokes. Be more assertive, son. Challenge the memory lapses. Suggest the old fellow suffers from convenient amnesia at key moments.
Another trick would be to ask more open-ended questions. This is when Rupert strays into trouble.
For instance, open a discussion about pay-TV piracy by asking Rupert whether he believed NDS ever did anything wrong.
If Rupert falls back into laughable denial mode — “one rogue reporter”, “Fox News is fair and balance”, “I never asked Blair for anything”, etc — then ask him to give a detailed explanation of what role his company had with THOIC.com. This was the piracy website, short for The House of ill Compute, which promoted and sponsored hacking all over the world and was secretly operated and sustained by NDS in England.
Jay did well getting Rupert on the record about things such as The Hitler Diaries, Tony Blair’s lobbying for BSkyB in Italy, The Sunday Times backing Heseltine over Thatcher, David Cameron’s Santorini visit, The Sun’s support of Labour for most of the 1970s and a host of other issues.
However, there are many other topics worth visiting, including the most notorious unsolved hacking yarn of all when Rupert ran audio and transcripts of Charles and Camilla’s private telephone conversations in 1993.
Michael Wolff is right that Jay should ask Rupert about the political connections of his family and friends.
For instance, Terry McCrann once told me that Andrew Knight was Rupert’s key link to Thatcher. Seeing as the former editor of The Economist and chief executive of The Daily Telegraph is still a News Corp director and chair of the remuneration committee at the age of 72, it would be worth exploring this link.
Finally, it is worth making the point that every country that has a media dominated by someone as ethically challenged as Rupert Murdoch should put him in the box for a two-day grilling under oath.
If Rupert wants to remain kingmaker in chief in the US and Australia, these grovelling politicians which he clearly has such little respect for should follow the lead of David Cameron and set up a decent inquiry into abuses of media power.
Imagine having Paul Keating, Bob Hawke, Kerry Stokes, John Howard, James Packer, Kevin Rudd, Rupert Murdoch, Ken Cowley, John Hartigan, Rupert Murdoch and John B Fairfax discussing power at work in Australia, under oath.
Once Robert Jay QC is finished at Leveson, Julia Gillard should give him a call.
*Stephen Mayne is News Corp monitor at the Australian Shareholders’ Association and a former News Ltd journalist who has questioned Rupert Murdoch at 10 shareholder meetings since 1999. He can be reached on [email protected] or on twitter @maynereport.