Murdochs’ defence strategy: ‘Sorry, we had no idea what was going on’

Appearing before a parliamentary committee was “my humblest day” according to Rupert Murdoch. AFP PHOTO/PARBUL

So, after a day of drama at Westminster, what have we learnt, other than the fact that Rupert Murdoch’s wife Wendi packs a mean left hook (future pranksters beware)?

For the best part of six hours we Westminster-watchers saw a succession of senior police officers, media proprietors and editors, assure British backbench MPs that they had absolutely no idea that any wrong doing, whatsoever, was taking place in the institutions they purportedly ran.

The day began with the Home Affairs Committee hearing evidence from the former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police (until his resignation at the weekend) Sir Paul Stephenson, and the man, supposedly in charge of the phone hacking investigation, Assistant Commissioner (until he resigned on Monday) John Yates that they had absolutely no idea that the News of the World (which committed Hari Kiri two weekends back) was knee deep in illegal activities, including phone hacking and corrupt payments to police officers.

Then it was the turn of Murdoch senior and Murdoch junior to assure MPs on the Media Committee that they too had no idea that the News of the World was knee deep in illegality. When one MP asked Rupert Murdoch if he knew that such practices were “endemic” at the paper he replied, in almost hurt tones, “endemic is a very hard word, a very wide ranging word.”

His son, James, waffled away, sounding like a man who thought that if he talked long enough the committee would get bored and go away; and Rebekah Brooks delivered her well-rehearsed, but unenlightening, lines flawlessly.

Perhaps the biggest revelation came not as a sudden explosion but in a series of sniper shots, as time-after-time, the Murdochs and Ms Brooks asked their interrogators, and by extension the British public, to believe either one of three things, as an explanation for their supposed ignorance about the more nefarious practices of News International journalists,

First, that they were surrounded by senior people who either through oversight, or deliberately failed, to keep them informed of things happening within News International that they really should have known about.

Or that these three controllers of a global media giant all took their collective eyes off the ball and failed to ask the right people the right questions about how the News of the World, and for all we know, other papers in the Murdoch Empire, have been conducting themselves.

Or third, that they knew everything, but were refusing to admit it.

As I listened to the evidence one thought kept coming back to me - and I was surprised, and disappointed, that the same thought hadn’t struck any of the questioning MPs. Was it conceivable that Rupert Murdoch, a newspaperman to his fingertips and Rebekah Brooks, a former editor of two national newspapers, never questioned their reporters about the sources for all those exclusive front page stories that, week in and week out, made the News of the World such a compelling product?

But there were two admissions that made we observers sit up and take notice. The first was when James Murdoch was forced to confirm that News International had been paying, and continues to pay, the not inconsiderable legal bills of the disgraced private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, the man who had undertaken the illegal phone hacking that first emerged in 2003.

Asked to explain this James said he was surprised when he learnt this, he didn’t know who had approved it but muttered something about a “duty of care” even though Mulcaire was not an employee of the company. Rupert intervened to say that if he could find a legal way to stop the payments he would – though if the payments were part of a deal to by Mulcaire’s silence, then that could prove a risky path to follow.

The other surprise admission came when Rupert Murdoch said he had no idea that the News of the World had agree to pay an out-of-court settlement of £700,000 to Gordon Taylor head of the professional soccer players trade union (and hence someone whose phone messages might have made for interesting reading).

Murdoch senior told the MPs that this was below the level of settlement that would have required his approval – a significant admission in itself.

Overall one was left with the impression of Rupert, a man who no longer commanded all he surveyed as he admitted that, “we lost control” of the News of the World. Which begs the question, what other parts of his Empire are, to mix my metaphors, sailing away, heading for icebergs with no captain on the bridge to steer them to safety?

So where does this all leave us? A little bit the wiser a little bit (maybe a big bit) more sceptical about what we are being told by News Corp and still angry about what has been revealed. But with one positive thought that to see backbench MPs – not the level of politician the Murdochs are used to dealing with able to cross examine the mighty Murdochs for hours on end meant that, at the very least, this was a good day for democracy.