LONDON — “This is the most humble day of my life,” a weary-looking Rupert Murdoch told his inquisitors on Tuesday morning, a few minutes in to what stretched into a three-hour grilling of him and his son James by members of Parliament probing phone-hacking by employees of News Corp.’s now-defunct tabloid News of the World.
Even the most skeptical in the room didn’t doubt the veracity of that statement. The most powerful media baron of the modern era came to the committee room looking all of his 80 years and at times seemed to be forgetful and inarticulate.
To add insult to injury, the hearing was disrupted by the spectacle of a protestor trying to hurl what appeared to be a shaving- cream pie at Rupert Murdoch. The News Corp. topper was only grazed by the foam, thanks to the keen defensive instincts of his wife, WendiDeng, who jumped up from her seat to bat the pie tin away from her husband.
Overall, thanks in part to the thwarted foam-pie attack, the consensus among commentators was that the Murdochs held up pretty well under the pressure of questioning by the 11 lawmakers and the circus-like atmosphere that greeted their arrival at the House of Commons’ Boothroyd Room. They were humbled, no doubt, but not bloodied or bowed.
“Rupert Murdoch certainly initially looked like a man seriously showing his age — it was quite sad,” U.K. media commentator Steve Hewlett told the BBC. “His lack of awareness … from a shareholders’ point of view you are not sure that this guy is the force of nature he once was.”
James Murdoch seemed well rehearsed, if nervous, as he reiterated that neither he, nor his lieutenants had any knowledge of alleged endemic phone hacking at the News of the World. Numerous observers had noted that James Murdoch’s performance under fire in the hearing could make or break his chances of one day succeeding his father as chairman and CEO of News Corp.
Not that Rupert Murdoch expects a transition at the top in the immediate future. A hint of his former fire came out toward the end of the sesh when he was pressed about whether he, as the “captain of the ship,” should step down in light of the ever-widening scandal engulfing News Intl.’s newspapers.
“No,” he replied. “I have not considered resigning. I feel that people I trusted let me down and they behaved disgracefully and betrayed the company. It is for them to pay. Frankly I am the best person to clean this up.”
Wall Street pleased
Wall Street seemed more or less satisfied with the Murdochs’ performance. News Corp. shares were up 82¢, or 5.5%, at the close of trading Tuesday to $15.79 — the stock’s strongest rebound since the flood of allegations about misconduct at its U.K. newspapers erupted earlier this month.
Rupert and James Murdoch’s general strategy for the hearing seemed to be to apologize for the transgressions but disavow knowledge of the specifics as the events were unfolding. The same held for former News Intl. prexy Rebekah Brooks, who followed the Murdochs at the hearing. Brooks resigned her News Corp. post on Friday, two days before she was arrested in connection with the phone-hacking scandal that has since forced the departures of two of the U.K.’s top law enforcement officers, Metropolitan Police commissioner Paul Stephenson and assistant commissioner John Yates.
Rupert Murdoch said earlier he was not ultimately responsible for illegal phone hacking at the News of the World.
Asked by a member of Parliament who was to blame, the News Corp. boss banged the table and replied: “People I trusted. This is not an excuse. The News of the World is less than 1% of our company. We employ 53,000 people around the world.”
Murdoch said he was “shocked, appalled and shamed” at the hacking of the phone of 13-year-old murder victim Milly Dowler. It was the revelations earlier this month that a private eye working for the News of the World interfered with the probe of her 2002 disappearance by intercepting her phone messages that spurred the groundswell of public outrage against Murdoch and News Corp. — so much so that News Corp. was forced to abandon its year-long, $12 billion bid to take full control of pay TV platform BSkyB.
Murdoch fils fields queries
James Murdoch did most of the talking at the hearing, fielding questions about everything from the intricacies of News Corp.’s internal investigations to the exit agreements with Brooks and Les Hinton, the former Dow Jones and News Intl. topper who resigned under pressure last Friday, hours after Brooks ankled.
James Murdoch said he was “very surprised” that former News of the World royal reporter Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire had received any payments after their conviction in the wake of the first wave of phone-hacking allegations in 2006.
James also said he was surprised to find the company had helped with legal fees. He added that he did not know who made these arrangements.
At the beginning of the interrogation he was refused permission by committee chair John Whittingdale to read out a prepared statement. He was allowed to submit it in written form.
Asked about his relationships with senior pols, James Murdoch said he had been asked to No. 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s official London residence, “for a cup of tea” by David Cameron shortly after he came to power to thank him for his papers’ support for the Conservatives before the election.
He said it was a very brief meeting and that no conversation took place other than Murdoch receiving Cameron’s gratitude.
He said he had been asked to enter Downing Street by the back door — both by Cameron and his predecessor Gordon Brown — because of the attention that it would cause.
Brooks sounded the same themes as the Murdochs during her roughly 90 minutes of questioning.
Brooks is no stranger to parliamentary select committees — she appeared in front of one in 2003 when she was editor of News Intl.’s the Sun, where she disclosed that her paper had paid police for information.
On Tuesday, she told the committee she would like to add her “own personal apologies” and dubbed the allegations of phone hacking and police bribery as “pretty horrific” and “abhorrent.”
Brooks, who was arrested Sunday in London and questioned by police for nine hours, had legal representation with her so that she didn’t prejudice the police inquiry.
But, said Brooks, “I intend to answer everything as openly as I can.”
Brooks, who remained composed and confident as the select committee questioned her, said the first time that she was made aware of accusations that News of the World reporters had hacked mobile phone messages was when the documents emerged concerning actress Sienna Miller in 2010.
She said once News Intl. discovered the extent of the hacking it acted “quickly and decisively.”
While she told the committee that it was a common practice in the 1990s for Fleet Street journalists to hire private investigators for assistance on stories, she did express that in light of recent allegations, she had regrets.
“Of course I have regrets,” said Brooks. “The idea that Milly Dowler’s phone was accessed by someone being paid by the News of the World … is as abhorrent to me as it is to everyone in this room.”