Murdoch vs. parliament: No curtain call yet
It may be the defining moment in the whole sordid ordeal of the cell phone hacking scandal which has beset News Corp: try as many MPs might have, it would appear at first blush that Murdoch father and son delivered the finessed performance of contrition, cooperation and combativeness that could change the tempo of the outcry against the media empire, now under fire on two continents — and possibly a third.
Murdoch’s answers will be picked apart for days — why was this the most humbling day of his career, and not his life? — but for the sake of appearances, which matter most because they will frame the meme, Rupert and James Murdoch did themselves every possible favor in an arena that could have resulted in unmitigated disaster.
News Corp stock was up more than five percent after the hours of testimony, likely on the sense that Murdoch the elder won’t be forced to step aside — he said he had no intention to — and on fresh, real-time evidence that son James is confident and capable without being arrogant.
It was the absence of any sense of entitlement that will probably be what saves the Murdochs, if indeed the tide has turned on today’s globally-televised inquisition. One needn’t look any further than last summer’s testimony of former British Petroleum CEO Tony Hayward in an equivalent setting before the U.S. Senate to know that smart people who aren’t necessarily in the wrong, and whose company has ponied up at least $20 billion in damage payments, can be destroyed by merely appearing to not get it while on TV.
This was a TV event if there ever was one. Murdoch is a naturalized U.S. citizen but our fascination with the Australian-born mogul has less to do with our overdone parochialism than how he transformed the media landscape as much and as rapidly in the generation before the Internet as the Internet has done since.
From his transformation of the New York Post into the prototypical Fleet Street tabloid, to the re-invention of cable news & commentary with Fox, to the full-throated belief in a digital future represented by the purchase of MySpace and the creation of the iPad-only publication The Daily, to the quest for respectability that came with the acquisition of the august Wall Street Journal, Murdoch is news — and he is seldom subjected to questioning that might be deemed unfriendly.
In initial questioning, Murdoch Sr. seemed to be unformidable, incredulously unfamiliar with unflattering news which have direct impacts on his properties, unsure of names and dates, awkwardly pausing as son James frequently sought to interject answers only to be rebuffed — as if MPs wanted the world to see a flailing Rupert who had been cowed into showing up.
But by the end of testimony the 80-year-old News Corp CEO and Chairman seemed to prove he was the top dog not only in name, but also by answering directly and forcefully, identifying nuance in questions to which he could have given diametrically different answers, even baiting his inquisitors about the role the press — and especially his media — has in ensuring the transparency that the public requires of its elected leaders.
The message was clear: You have me pinned at the moment, but people in glass houses …
And then, a PR miracle. Conspiracy theorists are probably already suggesting the pie-throwing incident was a Murdoch put-up job since a) it’s unclear how someone could smuggle a pie plate and cream into such a secure location, and b) the attacker’s thrust was nimbly parried at the last moment by his wife, Wendi Deng Murdoch, who had been sitting behind her husband.
Advantage 1, Murdoch: A 10-minute pause in the proceedings, a break in whatever momentum there might have been.
Advantage 2, Murdoch: The hearings ended not with a summation of how serious this matter remained, but with an apology to Murdoch — now jacketless — and looking quite serious as he read his formal statement.
The only thing missing was rolled up sleeves. That comes next as the Murdoch family attempts to assuage U.S. legislators and politicians who have every reason to investigate charges that 9/11 victims were victimized by News Corp hacking, which would jeopardize his TV holding here, at the very least.
But, for now, Murdoch can breath a sigh of relief for having avoided great peril. Facing down a panel of politicians could have been the beginning of the end. Instead, it feels a bit more like the end of a beginning.