article

07.19.11

The Buck Stops Elsewhere

Those expecting contrition will be disappointed. As Howard Kurtz notes, Rupert Murdoch took no personal responsibility at all during his appearance before Parliament.

It was a halting performance by Rupert Murdoch, who came to the British Parliament to offer apologies for the scandal that has rocked his company but, in the end, took no personal responsibility at all.

The blame, said the chief executive of News Corp., lies with “people I trusted to run it, and maybe people they trusted.”

Time and again, Murdoch pleaded ignorance of key decisions involving the phone-hacking debacle at News of the World. He was “absolutely shocked, appalled, and ashamed” to learn that his tabloid hacks had hacked the phone of a murdered 13-year-old girl, but knew nothing of the matter until the news broke.

He even tried to blame unnamed rivals with “dirty hands” for trying to “build this hysteria.”

Murdoch’s son James was a stronger and well-coached witness, sometimes veering off into M.B.A.-speak but also willing to turn questions back to expressions of regret for what News of the World had done. Still, both men struggled to answer such basic questions as why the company paid the legal fees of former employees charged with criminal conduct and approved fat settlements with hacking victims.

In a particularly unpersuasive exchange, Rupert Murdoch said that when he called his newspaper editors, it was “not to interfere” but “just inquiring”—not an explanation that anyone who has observed him over the years is likely to buy.

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Murdoch looked every one of his 80 years as he tried to deflect the committee’s aggressive questions (far more tightly focused, by the way, than the usual speechifying and grandstanding that marks most U.S. congressional hearings). Why was no one fired as the evidence mounted? Murdoch said it wasn’t the company’s responsibility to bring people to justice—a remarkable standard of corporate governance. He heaped praise on the top lieutenants who resigned just last Friday—Rebekah Brooks, who has since been arrested, and Les Hinton, the former Dow Jones chief, whom Murdoch said he would trust with his life. He dodged a question on whether it was “remotely possible” his editors didn’t know of the hacking, citing the police investigation.

So who exactly was responsible for the disaster that led to the shuttering of the newspaper? Not Rupert, not James, not Rebekah, not Les—that was the testimony’s unmistakable message.

Who is responsible for the disaster that led to the shuttering of the News of the World? Not Rupert, not James, not Rebekah, not Les—that was the testimony’s unmistakable message.

The sober hearing got a jolt when a protester tried to throw a pie at the senior Murdoch, with his wife, Wendi, and James trying to intercept him. In the cable-news environment, that will probably get as much replay time as the testimony highlights.

Once the hearing resumed, Murdoch, having shed his suit jacket, said he had no intention of resigning because he was “betrayed” by people he trusted—only he wasn’t saying who, or at what level. “I’m the best person to clean this up,” he declared.

That, of course, remains to be seen. As the proceedings wore on, James Murdoch seemed increasingly to command the stage while his taciturn father receded—a most unlikely scenario for the world-famous media mogul.