The sun rose on Tuesday to shine upon a fascinating spectacle: Rupert Murdoch and his son James, who rule the News Corp. media empire, were slated to sit before a British parliamentary committee to answer questions on the phone-hacking scandal that has blown up like a volcano in recent weeks. Ten arrests, including News Corp executive Rebekah Brooks, top British police resignations, and the sudden, unexplained death of the fellow who first blew the whistle on the whole sordid mess…no, it has not been dull.
The hearings were broadcast by every major news channel in America, but for something like this, only one network would do: Fox. Click here for any background you might need.
9:40 a.m. – Great day in the morning! I flip on Fox News for the first time, and here is Himself himself, Mr. Rupert Murdoch, facing questions from British Parliament with a look on his face like he's sucking on a dead perch. I'm astonished the network is actually showing this public shaming, but there he is, being very politely pressed on payoffs and cover-ups involved in the phone-hacking scandal. Next to him, dressed very nattily, is his son and heir, James Murdoch.
9:50 a.m. – Rupert thumps the table a few times, describes this as “the most humble day of my life,” and proceeds to deny any knowledge of the details behind this scandal. Some protesters pop up in the room and are removed, and the questioners are struggling to get answers from Rupert, as James keeps jumping in to take the bullet.
10:04 a.m. – “We felt ashamed at what had happened,” says Rupert, in response to a question about why News of the World was closed down. When asked about other forms of surveillance – computer hacking specifically – he pleads ignorance.
10:10 a.m. – Sonny-boy jumps in again to blame the whole scandal on “the acts of a few reporters.” He is lathering himself and his father with seeming regret, and says the bid to buy BSkyB was dumped deliberately to maintain the level of integrity News Corp. aspires to. “What happened at News of the World was wrong,” he says, “and we have apologized profusely.” He swears up and down that News Corp. is cooperating fully with the police investigation.
10:13 a.m. – “Are you responsible for this?” Rupert is asked. “No,” he replies. “Did you know about the payoffs?” Rupert is asked. “I don't know anything about that,” he replies. Of course.
10:16 a.m. – Fox has stapled a banner to the bottom of the screen that reads, at turns, “Rupert Murdoch: We Have Cooperated 100% With Police,” “Rupert Murdoch: Company Acted As Swiftly As Possible,” “James Murdoch: Company Acted As Swiftly As Possible,” and “James Murdoch: Our Company's Priority Is To Restore Trust.” You know, in case you weren't sure what they've been up to.
10:22 a.m. – James plays off the millions News Corp. has spent to pay off people who have been violated by their nefarious and illegal practices with the line, “It's less expensive than litigation.”
10:25 a.m. – Fox has shown this hearing for almost a half-hour straight now without breaking away, not even for a commercial. Yes, I'm surprised.
10:26 a.m. – The question: “Will this scandal make you think again about what your headlines say in the future?” Rupert Murdoch: “We were not aware of any transgressions.” James Murdoch: “We need to think more forcefully and thoughtfully about our journalistic ethics.” He's talking about establishing an independent ethics board. Yeah, right, that'll happen. I'm giggling like a titmouse right now.
10:33 a.m. – The bottom-screen scroll, because it's Fox News: “IRAN SAYS IT'S INSTALLING NEW AND EFFICIENT CENTRIFUGES AIMED AT SPEEDING UP ITS NUCLEAR ENRICHMENT . . . IRAN HAS BEEN PRODUCING LOW-ENRICHED URANIUM FOR YEARS AND BEGAN HIGHER ENRICHMENT IN FEB 2010.” Ready for another war, y'all?
10:35 a.m. – Another scroller goes by yelling about A HOMICIDE BOMBER IN A WHEELCHAIR while James Murdoch answers another question about payoffs and settlements with, “I I I I don't know, don't remember, but I I we I we can find out.”
10:38 a.m. – James is being pressed on the egregious size of various settlements paid by News Corp. for invasions of privacy, in comparison with the standard amounts found in British law. News Corp. paid out more by orders of magnitude than the standard settlement rate on several occasions. Why? Answer unclear, ask again later.
10:40 a.m. – Question: “Are you familiar with the term 'Willful blindness'? It is a legal term we heard after Enron.” James Murdoch is doing his frog-on-a-hotplate routine, and Rupert comes to his rescue with, “We were never guilty of that.”
10:43 a.m. – Rupert is asked how his “hands-off” management style works, how often he speaks to his editors. “Seldom…hardly at all…never…I'm hardly ever in touch,” is the sum and substance of his reply, but to say he's hands-off is wrong. He “works very hard” running his media empire, does Rupert, while apparently having nothing to do with his media empire. It's getting pretty thick in here.
10:45 a.m. – “In your conversations with the News of the World editor, it never came up that the paper was paying people six hundred thousand or a million pounds?” “No,” says Rupert. “Then what did you discuss?” At this point, Rupert's accent gets very deep, and his reply sounds something like, “Bluggle farg we never mwumple grrrr argle bargle never snuh.” Thanks Rupert, very clear.
10:52 a.m. – Philip Davies is a hound on a scent, and has James tap-dancing all over the hearing room with questions about the payouts, the guilty pleas, and the fact that News International paid the legal fees for an employee who was guilty of gross misconduct. “I have no specific knowledge of this,” replies James. “It is customary to sometimes make contributions to defendants, I have no direct knowledge, but we can follow up with you on that.” I'm holding my breath.
10:55 a.m. – James Murdoch is “very surprised” about the paying of those legal fees, and does not know who signed off on those payments. Management of various News Corp. papers just got thrown under the bus. It's getting crowded down there.
11:01 a.m. – Davies: “News of the World seems like it was sacrificed to save Rebekah Brooks. Do you now regret that decision?” Rupert: “The two decisions were totally unrelated.” James keeps leaning on the idea that all these terrible things happened “years ago,” and that just about everyone involved with News Corp. and News International are “totally blameless.” That's probably why there have been so many arrests, and why so much hush money has been paid.
11:05 a.m. – James is continuing to be “surprised and shocked” that the company has been paying the legal fees for employees who are now convicted felons thanks to this scandal. “I'm not a lawyer,” he says, and blames the paying of those fees on the company's legal counsel. More people under the bus.
11:15 a.m. – Still no commercial breaks. I think this is a Fox News record.
11:23 a.m. – James has spent the last several minutes displaying an epic talent for misdirection and avoidance. Virtually every question asked of him has been met with “I don't know…can't recall…not sure…let me get back to you.” Reagan would be proud.
11:30 a.m. – Rupert appears to be running out of steam. He looked to be asleep for the last few minutes of his son's testimony, and just summoned enough energy to say Les Hinton's behavior was unacceptable. He keeps banging on the table, perhaps to wake himself up, while his answers remain a barely-intelligible growling monotone.
11:34 a.m. – “Nobody kept me in the dark,” snarls a suddenly animated Murdoch when asked about the doings of his company. James suddenly flings himself into the conversation to explain that management is delegated in such a large company. This hardly jibes with their earlier testimony about making multiple phone calls to various editors throughout the empire to keep tabs on what's going on. “Certain things were not known,” says James, and the company acted right when the found out. “Acting right” apparently means millions in payoffs and settlements, along with giving misleading testimony to Parliament.
11:44 a.m. – “We welcome” the upcoming judicial inquiry, says James. “Breaking the law is a very, very serious matter, and lawbreakers should be held to account.” When pressed that News Corp.'s behavior has been totally unacceptable, James replies, “Well, and I think and I think and I think after the, I think after the, uh, particularly in light of the successful prosecutions and convictions of the individuals, ah, involved in 2007, you know, could not be, you know, taken more seriously, and if new evidence emerges, as it has it has in cases, the company acts on it very quickly.” That's a fair representation of his style of speaking during this entire hearing.
11:53 a.m. – Bedlam. Someone just hit Rupert Murdoch in the face with a pie plate filled with shaving cream, and his wife went Batman and smacked the guy on the head. The hearing is suspended, and the camera is now aimed at a far wall. Fox has cut to coverage by Sky News. They have footage of the pie-chucker covered with shaving cream.
11:57 a.m. – Gad zooks. The pie guy is apparently some British comedian, and a cop is wiping the crap off his face while he's still cuffed. The Brits crack me up.
12:03 p.m. – The Sky News people are channeling their Fox brethren across the pond, saying it's obvious Rupert Murdoch had nothing to do with any naughty business in this scandal. Of course. Rupert said it, poor guy, so it must be true. They just announced that when the committee reconvenes, there will be no press or public allowed in the room, and they're not sure if cameras will be allowed in.
12:08 p.m. – They're back, committee members are profusely apologizing to Rupert, who now sits jacketless before the committee. The cameras appear to be staying. James resumes his tap-dance around the issue of settlements for violated parties.
12:15 p.m. – Questioner Louise Mensch brings up the allegation by actor Jude Law that his phone was hacked on American soil, and presses the Murdochs on the hacking of 9/11 victims phones. James finds it “appalling” that anyone would do such a thing, and they will “eagerly” cooperate with any investigations…oh, and of course, they know nothing about it. The woman asking these questions, by the way, is married to the manager for Metallica. I'm banging my head as we speak.
12:20 p.m. – The pie attacker is named Jonnie Marbles, and he Tweeted before the attack, “It is a far better thing I do now than I have ever done before. #splat” Meanwhile, Mensch is trying to let James and Rupert off the hook by blaming the whole scandal on the general ethics of the British tabloid industry. Mensch closes by thanking Rupert for his “immense courage” in facing the bowl of shaving cream. She's a member of the Conservative party. Try to contain your shock.
12: 26 p.m. – Rupert is finally allowed to read his written statement. He's sorry, so sorry, my company has 52,000 employees and I've made mistakes before. He is sickened about the hacking of voicemails of murder victims, angry at compounding their distress, and is grateful for the chance to apologize in person. He's sorry, so sorry, very sorry, please know the depth of his regret. “Invading people's privacy is wrong. Paying off police is wrong. Saying sorry is not enough. No excuses.” Right…except for all the excuses my son and I sprayed everywhere today.
12:30 p.m. – The Murdoch portion of the show is now concluded, and we're back to Fox News. All they can talk about is the pie attack, and how forthcoming James and Rupert were in the hearing. They're warming up the seat in the hearing room for Rebekah Brooks, who recently resigned from News Corp. and was then arrested. News Corp. shares went up 5% during the testimony, says the talking head with a very Bushian smirk, and at last, a commercial break.
12:37 p.m. – Fox talking head just admitted that most of their viewers don't know what they're watching, if the messages they're getting in are any clue. Um, the phone-hacking scandal hearings, folks. Gives you a good idea of how much (little) Fox has covered this story before today. But the only story they're really covering is the pie attack, and how Murdoch's wife flew through the air to save the day.
Well, that was mind-numbing. Mr. Murdoch has been in hot water before, and has played the same sad-man so-sorry hand to get out from under. He always has, and it remains to be seen whether or not that ploy will work this time. The question of phone-hacking on American soil, particularly involving victims of 9/11, has yet to be resolved, and the FBI is reportedly investigating. In the meantime, today was about half-answers, mumbling, and sidestepping responsibility. In other words, business as usual. The pie attack was a nice change of pace, but on balance, I get the definite sense that cardboard cut-outs of Rupert and James would have served just as well to fill those witness chairs.
Coming Soon: Part II – Watching the Fox Reaction.