The best questions to ask Murdoch
By Nicholas Wapshott
The opinions expressed are his own.
The avalanche of information gushing out of London about the criminal practices passed off as journalism at Rupert Murdoch’s British papers will make it almost impossible for members of the House of Commons media committee to find out this week exactly what went wrong with the company’s corporate culture. That will have to wait for the full judicial inquiry and the rekindled police investigation; even then the whole truth may not come out. Commons committees are not made up of criminal lawyers. Like Congressional committees, they are large and unwieldy, and their members are too often tempted to grandstand for the cameras than oblige witnesses to provide truthful answers. But there is one line of questioning that may elicit some valuable evidence about how far up News Corp. knowledge of the malfeasance went.
The policeman who led the original 2007 investigation into hacking at News International was Andy Hayman, who was in charge of counter-terrorism for Scotland Yard. The probe went nowhere. News executives obstructed the main investigator, Peter Clarke, who complained to MPs last week that “if at any time News International had offered some meaningful cooperation instead of lies, we would not be here today.” At the time, Mr. Hayman enjoyed dinner with some of the obfuscating Murdoch senior executives, but instead of demanding that they provide answers or face the consequences, according to his account, he did not even mention the investigation. Then, instead of redoubling his efforts, Mr. Hayman called off the investigation, despite the 3,870 victims we now know to have been hacked.
Mr. Hayman did not stay much longer at the Yard. He was accused of fiddling his expenses and charging taxpayers for dinners costing $500. Worse, he was accused of an inappropriate relationship with a member of the independent press complaints commission, the body charged with investigating his misleading remarks to the press about the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian citizen who was shot dead by police in London in the mistaken belief he was an al-Qaeda terrorist. Mr. Hayman also fell out with the head of the Metropolitan Police, adding to his job insecurity.
But he was not unemployed for long. The top policeman who nixed the News of the World hacking investigation was invited by its sister paper, The Times of London, to become a columnist, where he writes on police matters, claiming he “left no stone unturned” in his investigation of the hacking scandal. The editor of The Times back then was Robert Thomson, currently the editor of the Wall Street Journal. The chief executive of News International at the time it was confounding the police inquiry was Les Hinton, who resigned as CEO of Dow Jones last week.
You might imagine that a company charged with illegality would be wary of employing the very person who had turned a blind eye to the wrongdoing. At the very least, it would besmirsch the good reputation of the company and reflect badly on Murdoch, who prides himself on knowing every headline and picture caption of the papers in his charge.
Lorraine Fullbrook, a sensible Conservative MP who is a member of the Commons media committee, took the measure of Mr. Hayman, telling him last week, “The public will see you as a dodgy geezer who was in charge of a phone hacking inquiry conducted by the News of the World, who resigned from the force among allegations of expenses claims and allegations of improper conduct with two females, who has told this committee today you had no knowledge of the editors of The Times while cosying up to the executive level of News International.” Keith Vaz, who quizzed Mr. Hayman in the Commons last week, was rather gentle on him, describing him as “more like Clouseau than Columbo.” Simon Hoggart of The Guardian quipped, “I wouldn’t let him sell me a cheap Rolex if I wanted to know the time.” To reward such a “dodgy geezer” with regular employment might seem an unnecessary risk, even reckless, to a company already being probed by police. You don’t have to have a particularly dirty mind to imagine that something nasty was going on in the woodshed.
So the questions Mr. Murdoch might usefully answer are these: Were you aware that Mr. Hayman was responsible for abandoning the investigation into your company’s illegal behavior? When did you come to know that Mr. Hayman was to be a columnist for The Times? Whose idea was it? Did you ever pass comment on his appointment? If so, what did you say and to whom? And do you consider his continuing employment by The Times to be appropriate?
Murdoch is a man of few words and may well decline to answer. But silence is eloquent in such encounters. And it will be telling to discover whether he still stands by his self-ordained dictum that when it comes to mistakes made by one of his papers, “The buck stops with the owner.”