James Murdoch Grilled By Leveson Inquiry’s Lead Counsel Robert Jay

Can the Leveson Inquiry’s lead counsel crack the media moguls?

Reuters TV / Reuters / Landov

Robert Jay, QC, arrived at the courthouse early today, looking somber in his trademark yellow-framed glasses.

This is a big week for the lead counsel at the Leveson Inquiry, the high-profile public inquest into the British press’s dark arts. Since the inquiry began in November, Jay has questioned a steady stream of key players in the phone-hacking scandal, from former News of the World chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck to Mark Lewis, the solicitor for the family of Milly Dowler, the murdered schoolgirl whose hacked cellphone was at the center of the outcry that forced News of the World to close last summer.

But now two of the British press’s biggest fish have been forced to swim into Jay’s net—Rupert Murdoch, who takes the stand tomorrow, and his son James, the former head of Murdoch’s U.K. operations, who is getting grilled today.

Press watchdogs and Murdoch opponents alike may be hoping to witness a skewering on the stand. But a more understated approach is likely to be in store. Jay is known to give his opponents plenty of line to dissemble and thrash about—in hopes of tiring them out before he reels them in.

That approach was very much on display in today’s battle with James Murdoch, who is infamous for his ability to dodge and befuddle with impenetrable management-speak. Murdoch liberally employed this tactic in response to persistent questions from Jay—culminating in one especially jarring display of obfuscation when the counsel asked Murdoch what he knew about the phone-hacking problem at News of the World in 2008, at a moment when Murdoch had authorized a large settlement to a hacking victim.

Jay laid it out clearly for Murdoch: “Either you were told about the evidence ... and that this was in effect a cover-up, or you weren’t told, or you didn’t read your emails properly, and there is a failure of governance within the company. Do you accept that those are the only two possibilities?”

Murdoch responded: “I was told sufficient information to authorize them to go and negotiate at a higher level, and I was not told sufficient information to go and turn over a whole bunch of stones that I was told had already been turned over … I don’t think that short of knowing that they weren’t giving me the full picture, I would have been able to know that at the time.”

Jay directed today’s proceedings with a casual tone, often while leaning on his elbows or pensively stroking his beard. A well-respected lawyer with a background in administrative and public law, he has a reputation for close attention to detail and a dispassionate interrogation style. In other words, he keeps his cool, which tends to earn a lawyer respect in British courts. Displays of emotion can be interpreted as bias—while getting an opponent to lose his cool is often beneficial to one’s case.

So far, Murdoch has largely succeeded in keeping himself from losing control, much as he did when he and his father testified before Parliament last July. “We’re not learning that much more, particularly because James Murdoch is quite good at batting away questions, and he also has this curiously distracting technocratic language which makes it rather difficult to understand what he means,” says Martin Moore, director of the Media Standards Trust and cofounder of the Hacked Off campaign against press abuses.

As the morning session drew to a close, Jay finally succeeded in provoking a brief outburst from Murdoch by suggesting that the mogul had calculated that his father’s newspapers could help influence politicians on the question of the company’s controversial bid for the British broadcaster BSkyB. “I’m sorry, Mr. Jay, that is absolutely not the case,” Murdoch interjected angrily. “I simply wouldn’t do business that way.”

Minutes later the court broke for lunch. As Jay walked out, according an ITV News editor tweeting from the scene, the counsel mouthed to a colleague, “This is such fun.”