Rupe's Hacks Dodge Flak

Article excerpt

Byline: Geoffrey Robertson; Robertson heads the U.K.'s largest human-rights law practice.

There is an Australian legend about the young Rupert Murdoch, his local newspaper, and a politician who displeased him. "Whaddaya want?" Rupert asked him. "A bouquet of roses every day, or a bucket of shit every day?" Apocryphal or not, the story was called to mind by his cheerful admission to the parliamentary committee investigating what now appears to be the systemic and illegal pattern of phone hacking at Murdoch's now shuttered News of the World. At the hearing, Murdoch noted that British Prime Minister David Cameron had invited him to Downing Street to thank him for his papers' propaganda bouquets at the last election. The gratitude was clandestine--Cameron arranged for him to enter through the back door, so the public would not know how politicians repaid their debts to media moguls.

Kowtowing to Rupert has been the political norm on three continents, but most excruciatingly in Britain. His tabloids are believed to be capable of delivering the working-class vote more effectively than trade unions are. It has taken a massive fit of moral outrage at the obscene actions of News Corp. contractors to bring Murdoch to some form of accountability. So there he was, with son James, eating slices of humble pie before a parliamentary committee.

It must be said that the Murdochs were fortunate in their interrogators--M.P.s "selected" only by the fact that they have not amounted to much. They let Rupert get away with his claim to have known, seen, and heard no evil at News of the World for the past decade, although everyone in the business knows how he routinely calls up his editors to gossip (which he loves) and to check that their expenditure on stories has given him value for his money.

He was also fortunate in being the victim of a moronic protester who threw a shaving-cream pie and diverted attention from the credibility of his "total ignorance" defense. But as the scene of Wendi Deng Murdoch springing to action was endlessly replayed, News Corp. investors might have noticed that Rupert was the only man in the room who did not react. He did not seem to know what was going on. This supported his defense--but also showed that he is much too doddery to run a major corporation.

As the Murdochs tell it--and the tactic was for James to do the telling, in management-speak generalizations, at great length and in an accent reminiscent of Donald Duck--they knew nothing of how their profits, derived from stories about celebrities' sex lives, had been purchased from corrupt policemen or came from illegal phone hacks commissioned from criminals. Rupert's avidity to hear of scandals before they are published never caused him to ask about their sources, or inquire about the hundreds of thousands of dollars paid illegally for them. He did not tell the committee the identity of the executives who approved these payments. "I was betrayed by people I trusted and perhaps by people they trusted." Everyone in the frame had, by amazing coincidence, left News Corp. over the previous week.

Only one question hit home--but it hit hard. The really obscene phone hacks for which the Murdochs had so volubly apologized were done by Glenn Mulcaire. …