On the 10th November 2011 the Executive Chairman of News International James Murdoch reprised his uncanny impersonation of Anthony Perkins playing Norman Bates in Psycho before the Commons Culture Media and Sport Committee (CMS ). The recording of the evidence and full transcript can be seen and read at http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/culture-media-and-sport-committee/news/james-murdoch-10-november/
Murdoch’s defence against the suggestions that he might be in any way culpable in allowing phone-hacking to gain a hold in the News of the World (NoW) was simplicity itself: his default reply was “I don’t remember” and his favourite variations on the theme “I have no recollection” ; “I do not have direct knowledge and “Not to my knowledge“… unless remembering was necessary to refute a damaging allegation such as the claims of Tom Crone (the ex NoW legal manager) and Colin Myler (ex-NoW editor) that they had told him about NoW hacking went beyond their one-time Royal editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, both of whom were jailed in 2007 for hacking into the voicemails of royal aides. In that instance Murdoch was absolutely certain that he had not been informed in 2008 by Crone or Myler that Gordon Taylor, the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) chief executive had transcripts of other alleged phone-hacks by the NoW implicating journalists other than Goodman, viz.: “As I wrote to you [the CMS committee] and testified about the evidence they gave to you in 2011, it was inconsistent and I do not believe it. I believe their testimony was misleading and I dispute it.”
He was also asked if he believed that Farrer’s, the solicitors to the Queen, evidence was misleading : “I don’t have any evidence to believe that, but neither do I have direct evidence to believe otherwise.” This translates as I have no opinion. This was my favourite piece of Murdoch lawyerrehearsalspeak obscurantism .
There was no end to the things Murdoch could not remember. He did not know the names of private investigators used by the NoW. He could not recall this meeting or that conversation. At one point he was not entirely sure what was his formal position in News International : “ I might have been named executive chairman, but I was effectively executive chairman.” (Q1614).
On the question of the hacking of Gordon Taylor the Labour MP Paul Farrelly asked (Q1617) “ Did you know what he did for a living?” The question extracted this gem from Murdoch: “Well, I was told. As I just said to you—just to be clear, Mr Farrelly—I don’t know if I had a lot of knowledge about Mr Taylor’s role beforehand.” He doesn’t know if he had knowledge of Taylor’s role?? One wonders if Murdoch is safe to be let out on his own or is he simply someone who has been so heavily rehearsed by lawyers that he has become paralysed by their instructions.
Murdoch was also remarkably incurious by his own account. When Clive Goodman’s use of hacked material from royal aides became known he did not discuss the affair with his father. When Murdoch became executive chairman of News International he did not show any interest in the detail of the Gordon Taylor case, even though he sanctioned settlement up to £500,000 in damages plus Taylor’s costs; so little interest that he said that he not read the legal opinion obtained by Tom Crone which advised settlement on such terms. Having become aware of the Gordon Taylor case, Murdoch did not think there was any reason to investigate how many more cases might be lying undiscovered.
Murdoch played the “NoW is a small part of News International; I can’t be expected to know the answer to your question” card frequently. There were two problems with this. First, although in the normal run of things a someone in Murdoch’s position (executive chairman) could not be expected to know the detail of the NoW’s workings, once the phone hacking story had broken it was entirely reasonable to expect an executive chairman to take a very close interest in the detail because common sense should have told him that this was something which potentially went much further than Goodman and Mulcaire or even the NoW. As executive chairman it would have been entirely natural for him to have instigated a general enquiry within News International to find out the extent of any further hacking because if it did, News International needed to come clean in one go rather than leave the story to trickle out over years. To simply take the word of the NoW executives that only Goodman and Mulcaire were involved was negligent.
The second problem was Murdoch’s failure, if his evidence at both his appearances before the CMS committee is taken at face value, to familiarise himself with the detail of the phone hacking once it became clear that these went far beyond the Goodman/Mulcaire offences. Even if Murdoch had been left in the dark about the extent of phone-hacking until the police re-opened their investigation of the matter in January 2011, it is extraordinary that he did not make himself fully aware of the detail once the police investigation was reopened. That he has not done so (as evidenced by his failure to answer many questions on the grounds that he did not know, for example, his response to Tom Watson’s putting of a string of private investigators’ names used by the NoW : “I’m not aware of the individual identities of private investigators that we used.”, suggests that either he is lying or has deliberately kept himself ignorant to distance himself from the scandal.
In the face of his repeated denials of knowledge of the detail of almost everything connected to the phone hacking , the Committee failed entirely to challenge Murdoch on why he had come before the committee so ill prepared when he had several months since his previous appearance to prepare. A rather strange omission to say the least. Could it be that the committee members are secretly still afraid of the Murdochs or in some other way compromised to prevent them going in hafrd? Tory MP Louise Mensch in particular seemed to be rather eager to ingratiate herself with Murdoch:
Q1645 Louise Mensch: “Mr Murdoch, I apologise in advance, but I am going to have to leave the Committee immediately after asking you my last question. We have children the same age, I think, and I have to go back home and pick them up from school.
“James Murdoch: Oh, good. Good luck.”
The Committee’s questioning generally was depressingly inept. The incompetence ran from a simple inability to build a line of argument to highly embarrassing grandstanding . Their questions were almost invariably far too longwinded.
The worse example of grandstanding was provided by the Labour MP Tom Baldwin who built on a demonstration which greeted Murdoch when he arrived to cries of Murdoch Mafia with, yes, you guessed it, accusations that the Murdoch empire was a Mafia and James Murdoch a Mafia Don and an incompetent one at that, viz:. ” You must be the first mafia boss in history who didn’t know he was running a criminal enterprise.”
Barristers favour what are called closed rather than open questions in cross-examination (although open questions also have their place). Closed questions are those which require yes or no, don’t know or a definite unambiguous answer, for example, in an assault case a closed question might be “Who threw the first punch – the victim or the defendant?” An open question in such a case could be “Who do you think was the more aggressive before punches were thrown, the victim or the defendant ? “ Questions were continually asked by the committee which were so open that Murdoch could reasonably bat them away , for example here is the Labour MP Paul Farrelly making a complete horlicks of his questioning:
“Would you agree that the fact that you cannot recall having a meeting or a discussion—certainly Colin Myler cannot recall having a meeting that Tom Crone expects to happen, hence his writing a pretty serious memo—adds the question of how these two characters are dealing with each other, and whether they are being full and frank with what they are up to?
James Murdoch:” I couldn’t possibly speculate about all the conversations they might have had with each other. I just don’t know.”
Farrelly is doing no more than ask for Murdoch’s opinion . Even if he had given it, the matter would have been no further advanced because it was simply Murdoch’s opinion not a fact.
Far too many of the questions were simply putting Murdoch’s word against the word of someone else, with no objective evidence to decide between them provided.
Farrelly almost asked a dangerous question . He pointed out that Murdoch had supposedly only known about the hacking of Royals when Crone referred the proposed settlement with the Gordon Taylor to him. That being the case, Farrelly asked why Murdoch had not queried how Taylor was involved if the Goodman/Mulcair hacking was, as the paper claimed at that point, a one-off instance of such criminality which was entirely to doing of a rogue reporter and rogue investigator. The problem was Farrelly had not tied down Murdoch with a series of prior questions which left him with no wriggle room. Farrelly should have led Murdoch to the position where he had again stated unequivocally that the only phone hacking he knew of at the time of Taylor’s proposed settlement involved royal aides, then hit him with the question “What made you think Gordon Taylor was part of the Royal Family?” This would have got a good laugh and after Murdoch had said no, Farrelly could have gone in for the kill with Murdoch both looking foolish and with nowhere to go.
What the committee should have done was keep asking Murdoch questions such as “Did you know X”; “Did you take this action” and so on rather than “why did you not do this or that? “ to build up a litany of amazing omissions which by their sheer volume would condemn.
The Committee also failed to follow the second rule of investigation. The first rule is never take anything at face value; the second to always follow the money. The money in this case is any large sums of money paid to those employed directly or as contractors by the NoW who have left the NoW’s employ since the original NoW phone hacking scandal. I say anyone, rather than simply those who are publicly in the frame for either or both phone hacking and the purchase of information from the police because it is possible that there have been suspicious pay-offs to those who have not been publicly connected with the phone-hacking or bribing police for information. It is also possible that people still employed by News International have received payments which went beyond their contractual rights.
The Committee should have pressed Murdoch on all extraordinary payments made to all News International staff associated with the NoW since 2007. Either a refusal to answer or any information given of money paid would have cast doubt on the veracity of any information given to the police or the committee where their testimony has either changed or has been of the “I don’t remember” variety.
It would be very interesting to see how Murdoch answers questions under oath. That could conceivably happen if further criminal cases are brought against News International employees and private investigators used by them.