The deus ex machina of Greek tragedy—a sudden and unexpected event salvaging a hopeless situation—was a dramatic contrivance much embraced by playwrights. The one that sprang organically into the drama in the Wilton Room of Portcullis House in Westminster on Tuesday afternoon was highly effective: after more than two hours of interrogation of Rupert Murdoch and James Murdoch, there was a cry of alarm, consternation on every face, everyone leaping to his feet and—best of all—the sight of Wendi Deng Murdoch in her chic pink jacket, seizing the assailant and whacking him audibly across the head.
Instantly the hubris of the situation (an arrogant mogul facing his nemesis or humiliation) acquired a new interpretation—poor, poor old Mr. Murdoch, who already looked so decrepit, crumpled and unhappy, had been cruelly attacked with the ultimate circus-clown weapon of cliché, a fake pie on a paper plate.
The transmission of proceedings was halted, the people who had queued for hours to be present were ushered out, and when the hearing resumed, Murdoch senior was in his shirtsleeves, transformed from wrongdoer to victim, more sinned against than sinning.
“Mr. Murdoch,” said Tom Watson, the bespectacled roly-poly Labor MP who hitherto had been Rupert’s chief tormentor. “Your wife has a very good left hook.” (In fact it was her right hand, and not a hook.)
As if that wasn’t enough to rescue Rupert from the piled-on vilification of the past few days, from the schadenfreude of old enemies whose gleeful anticipation (“Rejoice! Roll on the turmbrils!”—Polly Toynbee in The Guardian) could hardly be contained, the old boy had already garnered all the sympathy a wrinkled octogenarian can muster. Poor old thing! His head was bowed: was he asleep? When he looked up, he wore puzzled frowns; there were lapses of memory, prolonged bewildered silences and moments of deafness.
But he did not really need the attempted rescues of his son James, with his earnest preppy look, his corporate-robot’s upward inflections and his polite “can I just say something, sir?” Rupert had his own statements to make. “This is the most humble day of my life,” he said, early on. He thumped the table to emphasize how robustly and convincingly straight he was. “The News of the World was less than 1 percent of my company. I employ 52,000 people around the world. I appointed people whom I trusted.”
He had been “shocked, appalled, and ashamed when I heard about the Milly Dowler case” (the straw that broke the camel’s back) and “I was most graciously received by the Dowlers.”
After the hiatus, when asked by Louise Mensch (the young blonde Tory who promised that despite the assault, her questions would be no less tough) if, since Les Hinton had resigned after 52 years, Murdoch, too, should not step down as captain of the ship, he replied boldly and baldly “No.” Others have let him down and betrayed the company “and I am the best person to clean this up.”
He seized the chance to mention his father, Keith, “a great journalist” who bought a newspaper specifically to do good, and was proudest of his exposure of the scandal of Gallipoli. He insisted on reading out a statement categorically dissociating himself from everything: “Invading people’s privacy by listening to their voicemail is wrong. Paying policemen is wrong.”
And his trump card was undoubtedly the cool Chinese beauty behind him, who sat so peaceably with hands in lap, until her moment of glory came.