A morality play: When Rupert Murdoch entered Parliament

Any morality play has its set-piece characters. The villain, the outraged public, the crusading representatives of order.

Democracy in the UK is very tactile. Parliament is the voice and instrument of the people. Anyone, no matter how powerful, can be summoned to answer questions before the people. These performances can destroy careers and reputations but are an adjunct to the more dull and complex process of police investigations, judicial review and eventual judgement. They permit the public to see their anger expressed.

Rupert Murdoch’s role before his questioning was clear: he is the villain of this set-piece. He was there to be a subject of the collective outrage of British society and to hold himself to account.

Yet you don’t get to be an 80-year-old media tycoon without understanding that a story is made in the telling.

From around 15h30 UK summer time, Rupert and James Murdoch appeared before the Commons media committee.

The questions betrayed a fantastic gulf in understanding of how a modern corporation is run. A gulf best summed up by Lord Alan Sugar, the business mogul who runs the UK version of The Apprentice: “Bloody stupid questions to Rupert about micro detail when N.O.W represents 1% of his empire. Waste of time trying humiliate the old man.”

Politicians were well-aware that they could ruin their performance by appearing to be running a malicious vendetta and so, on the whole, they confined themselves only to the occasional petty aside. But they also expressed exasperation in weird places:

“It is revealing in itself what he does not know and what executives chose not to tell him,” said Tom Watson, a Conservative Party MP. Yet this reveals a limited knowledge about running a company.

I sit only a few dozen metres away from the CEO of one of the world’s largest corporations. He never hired me personally, has no idea I exist and while some of my work may appear before him, that is of no consequence. I work several levels away from people he hired and delegated responsibility to.

Now imagine how remote News of the World must be in a massive media empire that spans everything from sports on cable, to book publishing, to newspapers, and across multiple countries and time-zones. CEOs delegate and managers are entrusted to manage. Large diversified companies collapse if they’re micro-managed.

That doesn’t mean there wasn’t a failure of corporate governance but, if there was a failure, it is hardly surprising that senior executives may not have been aware of it until it had escalated beyond simple remedy.

All Murdoch had to do was be reasonable, apologise profusely and be consistent. He was reviled going into the interview; it couldn’t really get worse, and maybe people would just see an old man trying to cope with a difficult situation.

I found him impressive, measured and interesting. However, except for one occasion, everything he said came across as very carefully thought out in terms of context and consequence.

The committee also spent time trying to allege that Murdoch directly interferes in the direction of news at his papers. Piers Morgan, who used to edit News of the World writes: “Rupert called me every week for 18ms on News of the World – rarely asked about anything but what stories we had that week.”

Conservative MP Damian Collins asked if it is right that people in public life can expect total privacy. Rupert Murdoch’s reply: “Nope.”

Collins followed up: “In the Watergate investigation, looking at that, to what extent do you think that the use of confidential private information and phone records and phone hacking is permissible in the extent of a news story?”

“Phone hacking is something quite different, but investigative journalism, particularly competitive, does lead to a more transparent and open society, inconvenient though that may be too many people, and we are a better society because of it.”

The truth is coming out. No matter how inconvenient for Rupert Murdoch, and he appears to appreciate the irony of his situation.

So, who “won”? I think the Murdochs, and Rebekah Brooks in her later interview, acquitted themselves rather well.

The MPs would often make rather flippant – almost editorialising – questions. The Murdochs and Brooks would immediately start to answer, earnestly and seriously. Realising their mistake, the MPs would interrupt and clarify their question, taking the often spurious allegations out of them.

The experienced journalists wouldn’t let the original question go, choosing to answer before moving on to the redacted question. If people were hoping to see the Murdochs bruised and scared, they got no such reward.

If you were hoping for a fulsome day of entertainment, we got that. We even got to see Murdoch’s wife floor an attacker who tried to launch a foam pie at Rupert. “Mr Murdoch, your wife has a very good left hook,” said Tom Watson.

The full transcript is here at Sky News and Murdoch’s final statement can be read here (and correction to this link, he was permitted to read it at the end).

8 replies »

  1. I love how reasoned and reasonable always ends up with nobody at a corporation or at all involved in a corporation ever being responsible for anything at all.

    Last week we were told how dearly old Murdoch loves his newspapers; it was almost as if he was keeping them going at a loss out of deep love and public service. Now, they’re just little tiny pieces in a great big media empire. Rup couldn’t possibly have known what was going on; more importantly, he wouldn’t even care.

    So which is it? Or is it just an unhealthy fealty to wealth and power played out on these pages?

  2. My wife is Scottish, I’ve lived in Scotland for a number of years. I’m not an American who is impressed by the British accent. But these people are grown ups compared to us.

  3. “That doesn’t mean there wasn’t a failure of corporate governance but, if there was a failure, it is hardly surprising that senior executives may not have been aware of it until it had escalated beyond simple remedy.”

    You kow, the problem is that this is a failure of corporate governance that goes back a decade. Murdoch’s one-step-away-from-senility role was well played, though. But for the management of any firm faced with this set of problems to maintain this was a minor irritation, barely worth our attention, displays either a severe disconnection, or quite a bit of hubris. Murdoch spent two decades putting together a media organization in the UK that wielded enormous political influence. Well, that’s political. But it also looks as if it also compromised the integrity of the Metrolpolitan police to the extent that a criminal investigation may have been interfered with. This is an empirical question, and we’ll find out soon enough. But until then, I’ll reserve my adulation.

    It’s worth noting that no one yesterday, including the Murdochs and Brooks, was under oath.