The culture, media and sport select committee fell short by failing to get Rupert Murdoch, though "humbled", to accept responsibility for the phone hacking scandal.
When all’s said and done, following the drama of Tuesday’s select committee hearings and the prime minister’s Commons grilling, the key question remains unanswered: can Murdoch Snr. be convicted of any wrongdoing? The original purpose of Tuesday’s select committee summons to the Murdochs was to see if complicity in the phone hacking scandal could be established.
Certainly this had been a personal mission of the Labour MP, Tom Watson, who had long warned people of the wrongdoings at News Corp. The occasion was seen as an unprecedented opportunity to humble the press baron who had been considered omnipotent.
What happened was very different from what the committee intended. If Rupert Murdoch was keen to offer a mea culpa he did it without accepting any blame. Any good lawyer could have told you this would be his intention.
Undoubtedly from a public relations point of view, it was better to elect for short term discomfort and admit to being ‘out of touch’ than risk being embroiled in long term legal actions. Whilst it wasn’t palatable to watch Murdoch use his son James as a human shield during the questioning, it was shrewd. For those watching with any real interest, it ought to have put paid to the notion that Murdoch was a shrunken version of his former self without real power.
There are several key facts to remember when looking at Murdoch’s role in News Corp. The News of the World had the highest circulation of any Sunday paper in the UK in 2011 before its closure. Murdoch’s suggestion it was financially an insignificant part of his coverage hides the fact it was the most widely read and arguably most influential paper in his stable.
Second, the Murdoch family have 40 per cent of the voting rights in News Corp. despite owning only 13% of the shares. This means the Murdoch family have real and effective control over the company. Rupert Murdoch can put his stamp on the company in terms of what investments he wants to prioritise and what values (or lack of them) he wishes the company to follow.
Why is this relevant? For any mud to stick to Murdoch Snr. it needs to be established that he knew what was happening or wilfully turned a blind eye. Tom Watson was tactically sound in ensuring Rupert Murdoch had to address his questions head on.
What Mr Watson didn’t do, however, was to get Murdoch to accept in public he was ultimately in control. Given the facts this should have been doable. It should have been the first point that was put to him. That Mr Watson thought this was the case was evident but Rupert Murdoch needed to concede it.
Without establishing these key points, for all his eloquence Mr Watson allowed Murdoch Snr. to set out his defence that he wasn’t to blame. Hopefully he will get another chance to question him, and ensure he is not only humbled but accepts responsibility.
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