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From "Humble" to Pie as Murdoch Takes the Stand

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“This is the most humble day of my life,” declared Rupert Murdoch to a parliamentary committee today, and I can see why he would want to say that. They say you should always begin with a joke.

You can say what you want about the embattled CEO of News Corp.* and his performance, his company’s and his subordinates’ in the still-unfolding phone-hacking scandal in Britain. But one thing I can plainly say is that other than this opening remark, Murdoch’s presentation was not that of a humble man.

*[This is a good point for disclosure: I write for TIME, which is part of Time Warner, a giant corporation, multiple parts of which compete with multiple parts of giant corporation News Corp.]

Rupert Murdoch, after all, does not historically do humble. And when you get beyond his apology–and his sometimes dithering mannerisms–he did not sound like a man who was deeply reconsidering his ways. Did he hold himself responsible for the scandal?, and MP asked him. “No.” Who did he blame for the resulting collapse of his attempt to buy the rest of the satellite TV network BSkyB? His competitors, he said, who “caught us with dirty hands” and whipped up “hysteria.” Had he considered resigning? Nope. “It’s for them to pay,” he said–“them” being the unnamed “people I trusted” at News of the World, who he said bore responsibility for invading the voicemail of terror victims, celebrities and a dead girl, among others. “I’m the best person to clean this up,” he said.

I’m busy working on a column on the scandal for the print TIME, but my colleague Massimo Calabresi has a longer blow-by-blow at Swampland. In general, Murdoch and his son James presented a kind of terse-cop-loquacious-cop duo at the hearings. Rupert, who drew the lion’s share of attention from MPs (he and James often tried to deflect questions to the younger Murdoch and were refused), gave brisk, declarative answers, often punctuated by feisty slaps of the table. James, the deputy COO of News Corp., gave the much more jargon-heavy, media-trained responses. (“I’m glad you asked that!” he said often, as if the grilling was the nicest thing Parliament could possibly have done for him.)

Neither, not that it should be surprising, gave much in the way of definitive revelations. James did confirm that News Corp. had paid legal fees for Glenn Mulcaire, a private detective convicted of phone-hacking in 2007. But both Murdochs claimed they were unaware of many of the specifics of News of the World’s operations, whether payouts or the use of illegal snooping techniques. Both said they were assisting police investigations, without filling in the specifics of why they did not so assist much earlier. As for taking responsibility, as Rupert Murdoch’s replies indicated, they acknowledged that it must be done, but implied that the buck stopped far below them, at a point or points to be determined later.

The proceedings ended with a crude bit of slapstick, as a man later identified as self-described “activist and comedian” Jonnie Marbles rushed the Murdochs’ table and slapped what was apparently a shaving-cream pie in Rupert Murdoch’s face. In an astonishing display of protectiveness and reflexes, Murdoch’s wife, Wendi Deng, leapt from her chair and clocked the assailant in the face, as caught on video and much-replayed on slo-mo on news broadcasts later in the day.

Murdoch was about to answer his last MP when the attack happened. After a brief break, the session reconvened, and mortified MPs praised Murdoch for pressing on after the incident. They also allowed him to read his prepared opening statement in closing—whether a planned gesture or one in compensation for the lapse in pie security.

If the man whose company assaulted the privacy of ordinary British citizens and whose tabloids (not to mention Fox News) have helped coarsen the tone of news ended up having his image burnished by a literal pie in the face—well, if you should always begin with a joke, then this session ended with an irony.