James Murdoch Lightly Grilled by Parliament on Phone Hacking

James Murdoch faced a light grilling by Parliament, but it’s bound to get tougher on him from here on, writes Geoffrey Robertson.

AP Photos

For many years the Murdoch tabloids have operated as the British equivalent of Saudi Arabia’s morality police, watching and besetting celebrities major and minor, as well as nonentities who happen to be related to or having relations with them, in order to sniff out and condemn any extramarital activities. One member of the “Screws of the World” morality squad, a thuggish former policeman named Derek Webb, broke cover this week to tell the BBC about his targets. James Murdoch, the world’s most forgetful manager, had neglected to pay his bills when his father closed the paper, so Webb’s television testimony provided a lurid curtain raiser to Murdoch’s appearance today before the Parliamentary Select Committee.

Webb had spent eight well-paid years “surveilling” (as Murdoch euphemistically described sex-snooping) hundreds of targets ranging from Prince Harry to Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and his parents, not to mention the attorney general, anti-Murdoch members of Parliament, sports and film stars and–ominously–lawyers like Mark Lewis and Charlotte Harris representing victims who were already suing News Limited for hacking their phones. It was this last allegation, put to Murdoch after two hours of questions answered in Donald Duck–like management-speak, that hit him like lightning. This conduct, which took place but which he knew nothing about, was “absolutely appalling” and “deeply inappropriate,” he cried.

Actually, it was absolutely and deeply illegal: in English law, improperly invading the privacy of lawyers on the other side in order to obtain an advantage in litigation amounts to a “conspiracy to pervert the course of justice,” a crime invariably punished by a prison sentence. Lewis and Harris were trailed in order to find out if they were having an affair, and Lewis’s 14-year-old daughter was “surveilled” as well. If the material was being sought, as Lewis suggests, to threaten or intimidate him into dropping or settling cases against News Limited, this would be a very serious crime. It happened in 2010, after Murdoch had been chief executive for three years, and it was another of the creepy illegalities taking place under his nose that he told the committee he knew nothing about until someone else made it public.

Murdoch was lightly grilled, by a “Parliamentary Select Committee” of M.P.s selected only by virtue of their inability to get any other political job. It was a lengthy reprise of “yes, you did” (know about all the illegal hacking) and “no, I didn’t” (because his editor, his lawyers, and his executives conspired not to tell him the truth). This tactic is known as “confession and avoidance”–you confess that all these dreadful things happened on your watch, but you saw and heard no evil, and certainly were not told about them by the editor (Colin Myler) or the lawyer (Tom Crone) who “misled” (i.e., lied to) the committee back in July when they said they told Murdoch about the hacking in 2008. The question that News Limited investors will no doubt ask is what the chief executive thought his company was doing, settling privacy-invasion claims for hundreds of thousands of dollars more than they were worth, if it was not to cover up something very nasty that he ought to have known about. After all, who signed off on the lavish payments to hackers and snoopers and round-the-clock “surveillors”? How is it that Murdoch’s state of blissful ignorance lasted for four years, while rival newspapers were exposing aspects of the scandal and News Limited was responding with the “one bad apple” defense crafted in 2006 when its “royal correspondent” was jailed?

It is this length of time during which the allegations were allowed to fester that is so puzzling. The Guardian published most of them in 2009, and yet Murdoch remained utterly incurious until June 2011. The right and sensible thing to do was to have them properly and fully investigated, then to sack anyone involved for misbehavior and turn the evidence over to the police. But morality is what they apparently do not teach you at Harvard Business School. In any event, the truth about industrial-scale crime is very likely to come out, and chief executives are well advised to lance the boil rather than to cover it up, or turn a blind eye.

So what happens now? The Select Committee is an amateur exercise of little legal consequence–it will now write its report, although under United Kingdom contempt law it will be severely limited in its comments in case they prejudice impending trials. These trials are likely to be further delayed because News Limited has deluged Scotland Yard with 300 million emails, which will take the police years just to read. So far they have identified 5,700 victims of Murdoch phone-hacking, but only 600 have so far been informed (many of London’s minor celebrities are worried that they may not have been celebrated enough to be hacked). Most of these 5,700 victims will eventually sue, and the damages and legal costs (in England, the latter are usually heavier than damages) will likely amount to more than $1 billion.

Murdoch took every opportunity to insist that the culture of News Limited was changing. But it is hard to see how it will recover from the damage if he is to be the dynastic exemplar: his value-free, incurious, hands-off management style has been a disaster. Certainly the old tabloid ethos has gone—Les Hinton retired early and Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks are awaiting trial, along with a dozen inky-fingered journalists from the old News of the World (and, very significantly, one who was arrested last week from The Sun). In Australia yesterday, there came the shocking resignation of another old-school Murdoch supremo, John Hartigan, who ran the right-wing papers that have 70 percent of the national circulation. This was apparently in preparation for a judicial inquiry that may uncover more nastiness (although Rupert Murdoch has always insisted that he would not inflict his tabloids on his native land, because he would not want his mother, Dame Elizabeth Murdoch, to read them).

It may be a harbinger of things to come that Hartigan has been replaced by Kim Williams, a widely respected figure in the arts who began his career by managing string quartets and ended at Fox studios, where he has supervised some quality films and documentaries. Change the culture of the Murdoch press by bringing in culture? Stranger things have happened.