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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

FALL OF THE HOUSE OF MURDOCH IX: Showdown in Parliament: the Play and Players: RM No responsibility

This is an abbreviated post-festum version of My DKos diary which – because the sessions overran for two hours – I had to abandon before it Rebakah Brooks’ testimony. Much played out as I expected it – as you will see in the diary below.

Because testimony wasn’t under oath, because MPs aren’t trained investigators (like the forthcoming Commissions of Enquiry), and because Rupert, James and Rebekah could hide under the cloak of ‘ongoing investigations, it was always bound to be a damp squib investigatively.

However it was full of drama – and even pie!

An annoying and distracting moment, like most pie fights I’ve seen. Fun in some way – but completely counterproductive. The real drama came from the Wizard of Oz moment.

Whether it was calculated or not (I really doubt it was calculated) the curtain was pulled on the wizard, and what we saw was a rather bumbling, angry, pompous old man used to being powerful, but  when it comes to the question “Do you bear any responsibility” the answer was “Nope.”

But this is important. Merely tearing the veil on the secret unaccountable power of the Murdochs is  a revelation in itself. Murdoch never governed by being loved, by being charming, or by being intellectually respected: he swayed his secret powers by fear: fear of being exposed by him, salaciously, financially, politically, personally.

Now that fear has gone, the emperor has no clothes.

Full diary beyond the flip – I think, in the main, I predicted well. But Moosers, tell me what you think

Drama in the House?

So it’s finally here: the day I never thought I would see. Around 2.30 BST Rupert and James Murdoch will appear before the Culture Select Committee to answer questions on the hacking and corruption charges now facing Newscorp, followed by Rebekah Brooks an hour later. Live House of Commons Coverage here and apparently this will also be covered by C-Span.

As everyone is warning, it might be disappointing theatrically: Brooks and the Murdoch’s will both be heavily lawyered up and PR air brushed; expect no killer blows or sudden confessions; MPs are not trained examiners either. As Tom Watson, the courageous MP who along with Chris Bryant doggedly pursued the hacking allegations despite being ignored, ridiculed and then threatened has said:

“There is not going to be a killer blow on Tuesday. Expectations are way too high,” [Watson] told the Guardian. “We will get the symbolism of parliament holding these people to account for the first time. We will look for facts, and not just offer rhetoric. This story has been like slicing a cucumber, you just get a little bit closer to the truth each time.”

Chris Bryant himself has just reiterated on the BBC:

The theatre of [today’s appearance] is irrelevant. In the end we’ve got to get to the bottom of what is a very murky pool. And I tell you Rebekah Brooks was right. We’re only half way into that pool at the moment.

However, earlier there is another committee – the Home Affairs committee – could be just as relevant as the two senior policemen who resigned in the last two days are to be quizzed by MPs. There actually could be more fireworks here, since Sir Paul Stephenson has already lobbed a passing shot at the Prime Minister David Cameron over his associations with News International. Live Parliamentary coverage here.

Holding Unaccountable Power to Account: It’s A Wonderful Life

I actually find this quite moving, and a Panorama documentary about Murdoch actually bought me to tears last night. This will always be a significant day, because after 42 years, the man who was rumoured to be, and now revealed to be, the most powerful man in Britain is finally having to face its elected representatives.

Murdoch faced a closed, untelevised session of a Lords Committee years ago, which moved to New York for his benefit: but this is completely different occasion. Having suffered, like all of us, four decades of Murdoch’s tabloid menace and broadsheet right wing ideology, MPs who previous ran scared of Murdoch (because he could make or break their careers) are now going to face him without fear or favour. As Charlie Brooker put it hilariously, it’s like Losing God:

A few weeks ago, Murdoch, or rather the more savage tendencies of the press as a whole, represented God. Fear of God isn’t always a bad thing in itself, if it keeps you on the straight and narrow – but politicians behaved like medieval villagers who didn’t just believe in Him, but quaked at the mere suggestion of a glimmer of a whisper of His name. You must never anger God. God wields immense power. God can hear everything you say. You must worship God, and please Him, or He will destroy you. For God controls the sun, which may shine upon you, or singe you to a Kinnock. Soon he will control the entire sky….

But then suddenly everything changed. The revelations over the hacking of grieving relatives’ voicemails were the equivalent of a tornado ripping through an orphanage. “What kind of God would allow such a thing?” asked the villagers, wading through the aftermath. And they started to suspect He didn’t exist.

They thought about the hours and days they’d spent in church, saying their prayers, rocking on their knees, whipping themselves with knotted rope, or flying round the world to address one of God’s conferences, and they grew angry.

One by one they stood up to decry God. “He’s a sod,” said one. “No he’s not, he’s a monster,” said another. Eventually they formed the consensus view that he was a sodmonster.

For my generation (born in the 60s) not only has Murdoch dominated our entire adult lives in terms of news, but his model of the media has disfigured politics. Of my college friends in the 80s, many got siphoned off into the financial services to earn lots of money in entirely unproductive asset bubbles. But a large number also got sucked into journalism, PR, media.  I know my journalists – the mother of my children was a very senior BBC News executive – and while all of them were excellent, clever, committed people: I knew something was wrong.

I’d often ask TV presenters or news investigators why, given their passions and interest in politics, they didn’t go into politics themselves, and become and MP. Generally, the answers were awkward. They couldn’t say it, but they knew they would earn less money, and the route – being selected and then elected by the people – would be long, arduous and unpredictable. But one senior figure was bluntly honest with me:

Why would I become an MP, Peter. They have no power.

So that’s part of the problem here, a system dysfunction that goes beyond the Newscorp empire to the wider world of the blogosphere. Pundits and opinion writers make much more noise, more money,
and an easier route to political influence than the normal political careers. I have no problem with it as such – except this one anomaly. Politicians are ultimately accountable for their power – at the ballot box. As former Home Secretary Jack Straw has just said

Parliament should be the cockpit of the nation and not the newspapers

Today it looks like it will be.

So let’s celebrate today whatever happens. The people’s representatives are finally confronting the unaccountable ‘state within a state’ which Newscorp is. Whatever the outcome, I can’t help think of It’s A Wonderful Life and the way George Bailey stands up to Henry F Potter.  The confrontation isn’t direct. Indeed, at the end of the movie, the grasping monopolist – who would have turned Baileys hometown into a sleazy tabloid Pottterville – basically just disappears. The collective goodness of the community, which saves Bailey, makes Potter irrelevant. He keeps his riches. There is no denouement. Potter just fades away into moral oblivion and narrative insignificance.

This is how I guess the Murdochs will eventually depart, not with a bang but a whimper.

Ok a brief background on some of the dramatis personae:

Rebekah Brooks (nee Wade)

This is the one major figure in today’s showdown who I have met personally. I recounted that anecdote a few days back on Motley Moose.

It was at the Hay on Wye book festival, attended by many celebrities including Clinton and Gore, where I met her one night in 2006. Everyone was very drunk at this late night venue, but we started dancing and chatting, and kind of hung out in a corner, occasionally attended to by one of her quite merciless suspicious minions.

But the thing about Rebekah was that she displayed quite a ineluctable mix of flirtation, vulnerability and intimacy. She didn’t know me from Adam, but she was soon telling me all about the split from her husband. She also felt people ‘hated’ her at the very liberal leftie event that book festival actually is. But her one moment of passion – though we kind of had our arms around each other shoulders for some unfathomable reason (i.e. alcohol) – was when she told me how, after her night in prison, Rupert was waiting for her in the car outside.

The evening went on – it was already around midnight when it started – and we carried on chatting for a while. I think we exchanged numbers, I can’t frankly remember much else, except that impression of vulnerability and openness.

But one passing moment made me realise. Rebekah was alerted by her merciless minion that a photographer had been taking snaps of us together. Rebekah said she was worried for my sake (“Ross will kill you”) and walked over to the photographer and chatted with him. A minute later she returned with a smile and the photographers whole memory card. I asked her what she said, and she just smiled.

It was only the next morning, less befuddled, that I worked it out: she either said to the photographer “Give me that card and you’ll never work again/have to worry about work again.” Indeed, such was the monopoly power she and Rupert exerted on Fleet Street, the two statements are almost the same.

So there you have it. As many have pointed out here, Murdoch has already sacrificed the world’s biggest English language newspaper to ‘protect Rebekah’: he may even give up the whole of News International for his quasi daughter (if the family and shareholders will let him). Maybe this vignette gives an insight why…

But though a stellar networker, there are now multifarious pieces on what a useless editor she was. According to Paul McMullan, she knew little about writing a story, was distant and vindictive with staff. She could also be merciless against opponent. Chris Bryant MP was one of her early targets when he spoke up against The News of the World, and her paper published photos of him in his underwear. Several years later, when they passed each other one evening Rebekah noted the time and suggested Bryant should be “out on Clapham Common” – a notorious cruising spot. Her husband at the time, the actor Ross Kemp, retorted

Shut up you homophobic cow.

James Murdoch

I have no personal anecdotes to add about James, and there are plenty of profiles in the papers about the family dynamics in the Murdoch dynasty. Two things however – he’s next in the frame for a possible arrest for ‘perverting the course of justice’ and is the ‘smoking gun’ that leads directly from the corruption and law breaking at News International (the UK papers) to the heart of Newscorp in the US.

The second thing is his intellectual arrogance. I was first alerted to his right wing libertarian agenda two years ago, when he gave a stunningly pompous lecture about how the BBC needed to be shrunk, and that Newscorp – that arch monopoly – would bring competition and innovation to the ‘market in news’. As I called him in a previous diary, James is the Rand Paul of the Media:

Unlike his father (who was merely the son of a millionaire) and was an outsider with an Australian twang when he came to the snooty UK newspaper scene of the late 60s, James Murdoch is the son of a billionaire, speaks with a horrible Blair-like transatlantic twinge, and has the smug permatan look of the new apparatchiks – the MBA/McKinsey/Davos set who run the world without roots in any particular county.

The following year I met NI journalists and Tory apparatchiks at a conference who repeated this libertarian tosh almost word for word: here’s some of the hyperbole from his Edinburgh Speech:

For hundreds of years people have fought for the right to publish what they think. Yet today the threat to independent news provision is serious and imminent….

Sixty years ago George Orwell published 1984. Its message is more relevant now than ever. As Orwell foretold, to let the state enjoy a near-monopoly of information is to guarantee manipulation and distortion.

We must have a plurality of voices and they must be independent. Yet we have a system in which state-sponsored media – the BBC in particular – grow ever more dominant. That process has to be reversed.

His idea of ‘reversing the process’ was getting the Tories he supported to reduce the BBC (they did that in 2010) and to push for a cross platform monopoly with 100% ownership of our monopoly pay per view TV, and bigger than the BBC in terms of revenue, BSkyB. And this from a company which already owned 37 per cent of the UK press.

Plurality and independence? James is clearly a great dissembler. We don’t know yet whether or how he’s deceived Parliament. He may be yet be proved to be a liar, or maybe even something worse – maybe he has even deceived himself.

But let’s remember how close James was to both Rebekah and David Cameron: and let’s not forget: until this time last week the BSkyB deal was going to go through.

Rupert Murdoch

What can I say here that has not already been said? Ever since his arrival here in 1969 to take over the News of the World and The Sun, and then his courtship of Thatcher to allow him both to break competition rules and take over The Times stable of papers and then base Sky offshore, he’s been the bane of my life. I had a tough adolescence, with years spent on a council estate thanks to family bankruptcy, and one of the things that keep me going through my teens – a s
hard of cultural light which saved me from the brink and gave me a taste for writing and culture was The Sunday Times, then edited by Tina Brown’s husband Harold Evans. It was an amazing paper, full of investigative journalism, great columnists, great accessible coverage of theatre, books, TV reviews. When Murdoch took it over it became of pompous unreadable mass of supplements, with no clear editorial direction: right wing politics and ignorant cultural snootiness. (Though I think I did appear in it in 1983 thanks to the surviving theatre critic, James Fenton, reviewing one of my plays).

His influence carried on spreading throughout my life, both politically and professionally. His newspaper standards brought down ALL the broadsheet papers. He constantly attacked the BBC, which often cavilled under his blows. And of course, after the deal done with Thatcher, he constantly promoted an anti Europe, laissez faire, Thatcherite agenda. One of my heroes, the dramatist Dennis Potter, called the cancer that would kill him ‘Rupert’.

I briefly worked for one of his subsidiaries in the 90s, and though all his organisations are staffed with excellent people, ideologically and managerially, this was a culture of control, power, hierarchy, dynasty and monopoly: despite all of Rupert’s avowed belief in ‘free markets’ and ‘meritocracy’ and his pretence that he is anti-elites.

Michael Wolff, Murdoch’s biographer, and someone who has spent over 60 hours with the man, is still the best independent source of insight into Rupert’s character. What he says about today’s select committee appearance could be a useful guide to what might happen today:

He will handle it very poorly. This is something that Rupert doesn’t know how to do, has never done, has resisted doing and frankly can’t do. Rupert is – on top of everything else – an incredibly shy man and he is also a very inarticulate man and he is also a man who, I don’t think he is going to know what to do with the fact that he will be confronted here. It is very likely he will get angry. He will say things that people should not say in public. I know they are drilling him and rehearsing him over and over and over and over again and they are saying to him ‘do not say anything, just answer the questions in as few words as possible’. Whether he absorbs that lesson or not…actually I can’t imagine that he will or that he has.


  1. Shaun Appleby

    You’re creating a franchise with these.  Murdoch’s performance was unimpressive and can only erode his metaphysical power to terrify.  Pity about the pie, it was so clearly a tactical benefit to the Murdochs that one is inclined to go, “Hmmm…”  

    I thought the Home Affairs select sessions were actually more interesting from an “investigative” point of view.

  2. Shaun Appleby

    Pay dirt from the Home Affairs committe:

    Rupert Murdoch’s News International has been found by a parliamentary committee to have “deliberately” tried to block a Scotland Yard criminal investigation into phone hacking at the News of the World, the Guardian has learned.

    The report by MPs from the all-party home affairs committee will be released on Wednesday and its publication has been moved forward in time for today’s statement by prime minister David Cameron on the scandal.

    Vikram Dodd – News International ‘deliberately’ blocked investigation Guardian 20 Jul 11

    Ouch.  Game on.

  3. Murdoch News Corp. discount = 50%

    By valuing each of News Corp.’s businesses separately, the New York-based media conglomerate would be worth US$62-billion to US$79-billion, estimates from Barclays PLC and Gabelli & Co. show, indicating News Corp. trades at an almost 50% discount to its units. Mr. Murdoch, 80, is facing increasing scrutiny over his management of News Corp. after the phone-hacking revelations forced him to abandon a takeover of British Sky Broadcasting Group PLC and deepened a slump that has left shareholders with a 16% loss in the past five years even as rivals gained.

    “There’s just sort of this generic Murdoch discount, which encompasses the concern that he will make decisions that are not consistent with other shareholder interests,” said Michael Morris, an analyst at Davenport & Co. in Richmond, Va. “The sum of the parts on News Corp. is huge compared with where the stock trades.” Based on Mr. Morris’s own sum-of-the-parts analysis, News Corp. is worth about US$25 a share, 60% higher than the company’s closing price of US$15.64 last week.

    Tara Lachappelle and Danielle Kucera, Bloomberg News

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