07.18.11

9 Questions for Rupert

Murdoch claims not to know about any of News Corp.’s wrongdoings—a survival tactic that ultimately makes him look like an old man unfit to run a corporation, says Geoffrey Robertson.

Rupert Murdoch’s appearance before a parliamentary select committee is drawing the kind of international attention usually reserved for royal marriages. The committee, appropriately enough, is for “culture, media and sport,” and the Elizabethan sport that public anticipation calls to mind is that of bear baiting: a powerful, blinded beast maddened by small dogs. That would be to underestimate Rupert, who has been rehearsing for days, and certainly to overestimate the forensic ability of members of the committee (“selected” from unpromoted MPs, but in no qualitative sense “select”). It will operate under severe constraints as a result of the arrest of Rebekah Brooks.

The main constraint will be the presumption of innocence—or at least the British sense of fair play: Ms. Brooks was arrested on suspicion of conspiring to hack unlawfully and to corrupt police, and the Murdochs themselves may soon follow her into the finger-printing room. So "The Wapping Three" have a right to remain silent. When the Maxwells were called before a select committee inquiring into the pilfering of The Mirror pension fund, they brought along George Carman, the country’s top barrister. 

The Murdochs will be tempted to attend with a row of Queen’s Counsels—a purse of silks, so to speak—but this would be a public-relations error.  If Rupert ever says, “I will not answer that question on the grounds it could incriminate me,” News International shares would go into freefall. His best strategy would be to adopt the pose that enabled some screenwriters to survive dishonor before the McCarthy hearings—“I will answer any and every question about my own role but because others may face criminal investigation, Mr. Chairman, you will understand why it would be improper for me to speak what I know about them.” This pose plays well—it suggests courage in taking all responsibility, although in reality it masks a position that covers up part of the truth.

The committee hearing may well disappoint, because it is not designed for cross-examination. U.S. Senate committees have counsel and investigators, and their questioning can last hours and be very searching. U.K. select committees have few staff and limited time for a few questions from each committee member. There can be no effective cross-examination, which usually requires sustained questioning before it can be effective. “Laying the ground” is the most important part of the art. In court, it might go like this:  

Rupert might be well advised to burst into tears and say “we all make mistakes.”

“Mr Murdoch, would you agree that it is important for a proprietor, or at least his senior executives, to ensure that when payments are made for stories, you get value for money?  Is it not the case that you frequently telephoned the News of the World editor—usually on a Thursday—to check what payments had been made for particular stories? Did you ever stop this practice or delegate it to another executive? Did that executive report to you? So the buck stopped with you, and the knowledge of where the bucks went came to you. We are told that £130,000 was paid in one year to Mr. Mulcaire – which of you (the Wapping Three) asked about this payment? You must have been anxious to know what benefit the company was getting from such a large expenditure?”

This is the line of questioning that “Operation Weeting”—the Scotland Yard enquiry—should be following, and the committee may think that such questions on its part sail too close to the legal wind. It could, however, reasonably ask who is taking care of Mr. Mulcaire, the private detective:  

“Did News International pay Mr. Mulcaire’s legal expenses when he appeared at the Old Bailey? Is it, as has been alleged, still paying his legal bills? Is it making any other payment to him or offering him any advantage? Has it advised him about remaining silent? Will News International renounce all dealings with Mr. Mulcaire and any other private eye or policeman with whom it has contracted? And will it urge them to stand up and publicly tell the whole truth about their dealings with News International?”

Although the witnesses are not under oath, and so cannot be prosecuted for perjury, select committee appearances can be a useful way of putting the powerful on the spot. One line of questioning to which the Murdochs cannot take exception will be about their sincerity:

“Last Thursday, Mr Murdoch, you gave an interview to The Wall Street Journal in which you said, in effect, “I regret nothing.” A few hours later your strategy changed and you regretted everything. You parted with Les and with Rebekah, took out full page “sorry” ads and humbly apologized to the Dowler family. How can your sudden apologies possibly be sincere, when they are so blatantly part of the new damage-limitation strategy?”

There can be no legal objection to questions from this culture committee about the culture in the News of the World newsroom, although it could quickly stray into police territory: 

“Were you shocked, Mr. Murdoch, that your editors and journalists did not apparently know that it was a serious crime to pay a policeman for information? Just two weeks ago, Scotland Yard chief Sir Paul Stephenson confirmed that internal News International documents appear to show “inappropriate” payments to police. Why could you not bring yourself to admit that those payments were criminal? There are no payments to serving policemen for information that are not criminal, are there? Back in 2003, Ms. Brooks, you admitted to this committee that News of the World made payments to police, but dunderheads that we are, we failed to follow this up. Let us do so now. Who made these payments, when and to whom? And by the way, how did you come to know that they had been made? Did you approve them?”

This would come close to impinging on the police investigation that should have begun after Brooks’s honest answer to the committee in 2003. Although the police cannot be named, it would be legitimate to move to the question of whether the secrets for which they were paid were in the public interest.

“Mr. Murdoch, your journalists broke the law by bribing police and hacking phones. It has been suggested that the public interest may justify such breaches of the criminal law. Can you give us one—just one—example of a story of such great public interest that has come from a bribed policeman and could not have come any other way? Any story of genuine public interest that came from an illegally hacked phone and could not have been obtained from another source? If you cannot answer, Mr. Murdoch, I suggest that the stories obtained by these illegal methods were all trivial tittle-tattle, invasions of personal privacy without any public-interest justification.”

The committee would have no problem quizzing the Wapping Three over their attitude to self-regulation:

“You paid a million pounds or so each year to the PCC—was that really viewed as insurance against proper regulation? Did you ever reprimand an editor found guilty of breaching the PCC code of conduct? Did News International ever arrange for training in ethics for its journalists and editors? Did it ever give instructions to editors to publish PCC adjudications prominently and not in small print towards the back of the paper? Les Hinton drafted the PCC code of conduct but did News International ever bring it to the attention of its journalists?”

The committee chairman may eventually have to stop this line of inquiry in the interests not of fairness but of not laboring the obvious: Everyone knows that the PCC has been a confidence trick. All this may well be undramatic—the public expect the committee to go for the jugular. Like this:

“Do you remember Digby Bamford, Mr. Murdoch? Let me remind you—Digby was the 13-year-old schoolboy who committed suicide after you published his 13-year-old girlfriend’s diary in the Sydney Mirror. It was back in 1964, just after you had taken over your first big city paper and you published a 13-year-old’s diary ‘in the public interest,’ so you said, revealing teenage promiscuity in state schools. Except the girl turned out to be a virgin and the boy killed himself from the shame that followed your invasion of her privacy. Let’s face it, Mr. Murdoch, your career took off by publishing a 13-year-old schoolgirl’s diary. Should it not end with the hacking of a 13-year-old murder victim’s mobile phone? Isn’t it time for you to go, not just Hinton and Brooks? 

If the committee has a Clarence Darrow among its members, he might go on: 

“There were more Digby Bamfords in your life, were there not? Do you ever lose sleep over those who killed themselves because you had invaded their privacy, or that of their loved ones? Remember Samantha McAlpine, age 15, who danced with Top of the Pops and whose ‘leatherette-bound diary’ was said by News of the World, just after you took it over, to prove promiscuity among young dancers at the BBC? She committed suicide the next day and later the coroner declared her to be a virgin and her diary ‘fantasy.’ Then at much the same time there was the dedicated Welsh schoolteacher who committed suicide after the paper named him as a participant in a ‘caravan sex party.’  More recently of course, there was Max Moseley’s son.  Have you ever counted the number of people your privacy-invading journalism has killed?  Or is that an unfair way of putting it?  I would not like to be unfair to you, Mr. Murdoch. How would you put it?  Collateral damage from breaches of privacy committed in the interests of profit?"

This line of questioning might rattle the Wapping Three: Rupert will need to convince the public that he actually has a conscience and is sincere in his apologies. He might be well advised to burst into tears and say “we all make mistakes."

The committee should avoid foreign ownership questions which will make them sound parochial or xenophobic or both. They could, however, usefully ask why his Australian papers are so much more ethical (in the past, he has said that he would not like his mother, the 103-year old Dame Elizabeth, to read his English tabloids.) But this will give Rupert the opportunity to remind the committee—and the world—that he is simply catering for the peculiarly prurient English desire for a Sunday morning snigger at the sex lives of others. This is true, up to a point, and Rupert will seize every opportunity to exculpate News International by pointing out that his Australian and American papers do not need to cater to the English addiction to celebrity sex secrets. Rupert, notwithstanding his U.S. tax domicile, remains Australian in voice and mind and if the committee is to play a nationalistic card, it should be done lightly:

“You are, Mr. Murdoch, a great Australian—in the sense perhaps, that Attila was a great Hun. Tell us, in 50 years’ time, whom do you think your countrymen will honor more for his contribution to media freedom—yourself, or Mr. Julian Assange?”

Correction: This article originally referred to News International, the British division of News Corp., as News Limited, the Australian division of News Corp. News Limited has not been implicated in the phone-hacking scandal. The article has been updated.