Rupert Murdoch, James Murdoch, and Rebekah Brooks pretend they're the ultimate phone-hacking victims.

Media criticism.
July 19 2011 6:12 PM

Who Framed the Murdochs?

Rupert Murdoch and James Murdoch pretend they're the victims of unscrupulous employees.

James Murdoch.
James Murdoch

In five hours of hearings before a parliamentary committee today, witnesses Rupert Murdoch, James Murdoch, and Rebekah Brooks attempted to convince the world that they have been framed by their former News of the World employees.

The trio never accused anybody by name, but they repeatedly portrayed themselves as victims of phone-hacking underlings. They knew nothing of the practice, they claimed, until their reporter Clive Goodman of News of the World and private detective Glenn Mulcaire were charged and went to jail in 2007 for hacking the phones of "royal" family staffers. As Brooks explained, she wasn't aware that current News of the World staffers were still hacking until actor Sienna Miller filed a civil suit against the paper and she saw the documents in December.

When asked which senior staffers had lied to her about phone-hacking practices, Brooks retreated.

"Unfortunately, because of the criminal procedure, I'm not sure that it's possible to infer guilt until those criminal procedures have taken place," she said.

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Working from the same victim's playbook, Rupert Murdoch repelled a similar line of questioning during his gentle interrogation from MP Tom Watson. Who lied to you about phone-hacking, Watson asked.

"I don't know. That is what the police are investigating and that is what I am looking into," said the genocidal tyrant.

Who was responsible for the scandal? You?

"No," Murdoch said. "The people I trusted and the people they trusted," he expanded, making an even stronger bid for victimhood, but once again not naming the trusted. If police were listening closely, there is one suspect Murdoch wants them to strike from the list. He stated unequivocally, "I don't think Mr. Hinton misled me."

Although Murdoch, Murdoch, and Brooks wanted the committee to know how completely they had been betrayed and misled by their underlings, they weren't prepared to rat out any of them. That's an awkward kind of Omertà. Aren't the soldiers supposed to go to jail for the dons? Isn't that the direction loyalty is supposed to flow? Or was today just not the best day to book the proper middle-manager rooms in prison?

James Murdoch kept apologizing, saying he was sorry and filled with regrets and frustrated by the scandal, saying that the hacking was "inexcusable." But if he's really a betrayal victim, what does he have to apologize for?

Rebekah Brooks.
Rebekah Brooks

Brooks hoped to bolster her victim pedigree when she reminded the committee that her phone had been hacked, too. Brooks grew ever-more craven as the questioning went on, making three references to her pet project Sarah's Law. Championed by News of the World under her editorship, the law is the U.K. version of Megan's Law. Like Megan's Law, it makes convicted sex offenders perpetual pariahs.

The attempt by Murdoch, Murdoch, and Brooks to reposition themselves from possible defendants in civil proceedings to potential plaintiffs in the court of public opinion got rolling in the first committee hearing, in which the Murdochs appeared.

Committee Chairman John Whittingdale put James in his place, declining his request to make an opening statement before questioning. As James took a question, Rupert interrupted with his canned apology, croaking, "This is the most humble day of my life." This established the role Rupert intended to play—that of a batty, cantankerous, and slightly out-of-it tycoon. He made even his enemies nervous with his long pauses before answering simple questions. He didn't appear to be using the time to figure out what to say but how to comprehend the question asked. But who could be sure? "There is definitely something Junior Soprano about Rupert," tweeted Michael McDermott

No, Murdoch answered when asked if he knew about the astronomical settlements paid to phone-hacking targets Gordon Taylor and Max Clifford. No, Murdoch said, he wasn't aware that the committee had previously accused his executives of being guilty of "collective amnesia."

"You're not saying amnesia, you're saying lying," said Rupert Murdoch, indicating that for all the loose flesh and liver spots on his face, he wasn't half as daft as he was acting. James kept interceding on his father's behalf, reminding me of Father Karras in The Exorcist, who tells the demon that has possessed Regan, "Take me, take me!" James may eventually get his wish.

Between the two Murdochs, you had Mr. Monosyllable, struggling to express himself and appearing to doze off at least until the pie order arrived and quickened his pulse; and Mr. Spin,  filibustering for time to think with comments about the questions asked. "I'm glad you asked about it," James said. "It's a good question" and "That's an important question" and that's a "specific question," he ventured. "I'm not a lawyer," James said at least twice, seeming to wish he were. Don't worry, James, your dad will buy you the very best when the time comes.

Both hearings were obstructed by grandstanding MPs, most of whom had more statements to make than questions to ask. For my money, the two sessions could have produced real results had all the time been given to Watson, whose polite and precise questions gave the witnesses little room to dodge and whose knowledge of the scandal appears Wikipedic.

The best analysis of the hearings came from Alex Heard, editorial director of Outside magazine. "What a small (lying) hole they're successfully running through," he tweeted about the Murdochs. "Too dumb to know this was hap'ning; smart enuff to still run the biz."

It's a terrific short-term strategy for the Murdochs and an even better long-term one, just as long as nobody shrinks the hole and traps them.

******

I'm eager to finish my piece so I can read Nick Davies of the Guardian on the same topic. Davies broke the phone-hacking story and would have been a terrific interrogator himself. Send interrogation directions to slate.pressbox@gmail.com and monitor my forgetful, apologetic Twitter feed. (Email may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For email notification of errors in this specific column, type Murdochs in the subject head of an email message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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