Today in Parliament
As expected, the appearance of James Murdoch, the Chief Executive of News International (and related to some other famous people) before the DCMS Committee today failed to produce any huge bombshells. Let's remind ourselves that the Parliamentary Committee has no real powers of subpoena, witnesses are not obliged to testify on oath, is not run by trained lawyers, and is not allowed to investigate anything that could prejudice the three ongoing police investigations.
James is smart, lawyered up, and left no hostages to fortune in terms of his evidence. Tom Watson had some stellar moments, challenging James over various contradictory testimonies, naming three or four other private investigators working for News International (adding some cryptic reference to Operation Millipede), and at least landing a rhetorical blow by calling James
'the first mafia boss in history who didn't know he was running a criminal enterprise.'.
(This latter remark has caused some consternation among Watson's enemies and Murdoch's apologists - but my American friends will know that the Department of Justice IS looking at potential RICO violations by Newscorp)
All in all, another day in the ongoing Murdoch saga. As Britover puts it in an excellent rec-listed diary: Some top line people really need to face jailtime. The most senior executive of the sixteen so far arrested has been Rebekah Brooks: but though James might not feel the hand of the law on his shoulder, the media scrutiny of his performance could be just as damaging in the long run.
But however evasive and well trained James is at avoiding direct questions ("I have no knowledge of that... I don't recall") there are three glaring contradictions that this appearance has underlined.
1. Someone has Misled Parliament over the information provided to James when he authorised an extraordinary 700,000 GBP payment to Gordon Taylor in a civil suit over his phone being hacked by News of the World. James' claim in his previous appearance in July that he had no knowledge of phone hacking beyond the rogue reporter Clive Goodman had been directly contradicted by evidence given by the editor of NOTW at the time, Colin Myler, and News International's chief legal adviser, Tom Crone. They claim they informed James when he made that settlement. James now claims they didn't tell him, and that they misled Parliament rather than him.
TW: Did you mislead this committee?
JM: No I did not
TW: If you didn't who did?
JM I believe his committee was given [evidence] by people without full possession of the facts or...it was economical. My own testimony has been consistent. I testify to this committee with as much clarity and transparency as I can.
TW: Was it Mr Crone [who misled the committee?]
JM: I thought it was inconsistent and
TW: So you agree he misled the committee
JM: It follows that I do. I believe their testimony was misleading and I dispute it
This is a kind of either/or argument that the Committee will comment on: both accounts cannot be true.
2. How can an Effective Chief Executive be so ineffectual? James consistent response to the mounting evidence of extensive phone hacking, blagging and other borderline illegal activities by his staff was 'how am I supposed to know that level of detail'. Fair enough. But when you're making multimillion pound payouts to Gordon Taylor and Max Clifford, with dozens of other suits pending, surely it's your corporate duty to find out.
This is now being called the Asda Moment - 'Asda' is the UK equivalent of Walmart.
After explaining that he used to work for the supermarket chain (owned by the giant US company, Walmart) Davies registered his incredulity that Murdoch could have authorised the payment of more than £500,000 (to Taylor) without inquiring deeply into the reasons.
"It all seems so cavalier to me," said Davies. "You agree to settle cases with no real cap but a ballpark figure. You agree that a company should have a legal opinion, but you don't even ask to see the opinion when it is written."
3. A Fit and Proper Person? Next month is the shareholders meeting of BSkyB, Britain's largest pay-for-TV operator, 39.14% owned by Newscorp. Though the public outcry and online petitioning (by groups such as Avaaz) effectively stopped the full takeover of the company this summer, James still chairs the board. Our broadcast regulator, Ofcom, has a statutory duty to make sure that owners of licensed broadcasters are 'fit and proper' and can revoke a license if a director fails that test.
By the time BSkyB meets next, the DCMS committee will have ruled whether James has deceived Parliament or not.
Is being either/or a 'liar' or completely incompetent enough? Or even better - both.
In other News
Your intrepid reporter made
a fool of himself an appearance outside Parliament for James' testimony. Bedecked like a human press pack, Brit decided to protest about the 30 years of Murdoch influence by sporting a sandwich board illustrated by fellow Kossack Eric Lewis, bearing the understated message:
Murdoch Ruined my Life.
Above you can see him above talking to a French journalist. Tonight he will appear on Al Jazeera. Below he joins members of the Avaaz campaign also picketing parliament.
When it's processed, I'll also post a video of him picketing Portcullis House where James was supposed to arrive, only to be stopped by a policeman and told (much to his shock and amazement) that no protests or placards are allowed within a kilometre of Parliament without prior approval, and I could be arrested. I told the very polite and helpful officer that I wasn't protesting, merely advertising the book I'm writing with Eric Bad Press: Fall of the House of Murdoch. The policeman said he didn't hear that, because advertising without a licence could also earn me a night in the cells.
I'm not as brave as many in the Occupy Movement, and rapidly removed my billboards.
There will be more about the book in later posts. It will be loosely based on my Kossack series of diaries, and focus on the stellar 'crowd sourced' journalism, reportage and activism of my fellow bloggers. It will also be crowd sourced in funding, so we'll be hitting back at the command and control modus operandi of the main stream media both in form and content.
Meanwhile join me below to discuss what you make of this latest chapter in the FOTHOM saga. And do contribute to the dedicated Bad Press: Fall of the House of Murdoch website if you can