07.19.11

A Humbled Empire

Tuesday’s parliamentary inquiry might not be the beginning of the end, but it’s no longer clear Rupert Murdoch’s family business can survive intact.

This was the man who made governments tremble? This the mightiest press baron of them all? The proprietor credited, by his enemies at least, with making and breaking governments whenever he felt like doing so? Surely not!

If this was the last tycoon still standing in this multimedia world, then suddenly the old man looked his age. The 80-year-old Rupert Murdoch seemed confused and oddly bewildered, seemingly unaware of anything that happened at his own company. “I’m not really in touch” he admitted.

As Tom Watson, the Labour backbencher who has been most dogged in pursuing the phone-hacking scandal, put it, “Rupert Murdoch is responsible for corporate governance, and it is very revealing what he doesn’t know.” As Watson picked away at the Murdoch Empire, it was almost too excruciating to watch: Murdoch Senior seemed confused to the point of senility. One half-expected James Murdoch to intervene, asking Watson to take pity on the old man and address his questions to James. (Where Rupert appeared confused, James seemed determined to smother his audience beneath a blanket of corporate blandishments and gobbledygook.)

None of what happened at the News of the World—a small part of his mammoth empire—was Rupert Murdoch’s responsibility. He didn’t know.

“People I trusted let me down. I think they behaved disgracefully.”

“They betrayed the company and me.” Murdoch, who said the newspaper that occupies most of his time is The Wall Street Journal, insisted, however, that advancing years or not, “frankly, I think I’m the best person to clean this mess up.”

In the second half of the hearingbefore he was assaulted by a bone- headed leftist demonstrator—Murdoch perked up. Prime ministers? “I wish they’d leave me alone”! How we chuckled. The prime minister he was closest too in recent years? Gordon Brown. So much so that he hoped they could be “friends” once again.

If there was wrongdoing Rupert Murdoch didn’t know about it and it happened before James Murdoch returned to News Corp.

There was defiance here, and so too in his statement, “I do not accept ultimate responsibility. I hold responsible the people that I trusted to run it and the people they trusted.

But some facts did emerge, and others were clarified. It was confirmed that News International has been paying the legal fees of Glenn Mulcaire, the disgraced private investigator responsible for much of the phone hacking that would eventually destroy the News of the World after 168 years of glorious muckraking. Mulcaire has refused to testify in civil actions launched by hacking victims; yesterday Rupert Murdoch said the company would cease paying any part of the hacker’s legal fees.

Above all, however, if there was wrongdoing, Rupert Murdoch didn’t know about it, and it happened before James Murdoch returned to News Corp.

That was the story and they stuck to it.

Even so, this was a day in which the mighty Murdoch Empire was called to account and so, in that respect, humbled. It may not be the beginning of the end, but it is not obvious the empire can survive intact or be passed on to the younger generation as easily as Murdoch would like it to be. If that proves the case then the lasting impression of today’s remarkable events may be to remind us of Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”