Jim Carroll

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The emperor in shirt-sleeves

There are one or two things you shouldn’t do if you are a fabled media mogul whose bark and bite has kept a succession of politicians in your pocket. One of these is to to show that you’re actually out …

Wed, Jul 20, 2011, 09:53

   

There are one or two things you shouldn’t do if you are a fabled media mogul whose bark and bite has kept a succession of politicians in your pocket. One of these is to to show that you’re actually out of touch with what’s going on in your own empire.

Yesterday in an off-off-Broadway room in Westminister, News Corporation boss Rupert Murdoch turned up to take questions from Tom Watson and other members of the House of Commons’ culture, media and sport committee about that troublesome one per cent of his media empire, the News of the World and its hacking culture. It was an eye-opening performance, in all the wrong ways.

If it were not for the interference of that attention-seeking clown who attacked Murdoch Sr with shaving foam, we would be talking about a Wizard of Oz moment this morning, when the man who has pulled media strings for decades was revealed to be someone who didn’t know what was going on. There were probably many people who watched the proceedings yesterday afternoon and wondered if this really was the guy courted by politicians and prime ministers over the years keen to win his favours and to have him and his papers on side. The guy who is unable to answer those questions about his business. The guy whose son is doing his level best to butt in and protect him. The guy who was doing a very credible line in doddery old man.

For the media world, the last couple of weeks have been quite astonishing. From the sudden closure of one of the most successful products in the News Corp portfolio to the appearance of Murdoch father and son at Westminister yesterday, this story has moved very quickly. Every time I look at the Guardian frontpage, the publication which has run this game (and Nick Davies, in particular, is playing a blinder – if you haven’t done so, have a read of his excellent “Flat Earth News”), there seems to be another splash about a revelation, resignation or plot twist.

We’ve seen the story spread from the News of the World to the London Metropolitan Police and onto Westminister. Media executives and police top brass have already resigned (many under clearly evident protest) and it will be quite incredible if there’s not some political casualities to add to the list. No-one believes we’re anywhere near the end of this story. The news cycle may move on, but this story will probably claim more scalps in the coming weeks, especially those who think they might be able to weasel their way through it.

Will Murdoch Sr and Jr get the chop? Well, News Corp shareholders still seem happy to leave their cash in the company for now – after all, publishing revenue is just a small part of the balance sheet. It could be a different story if the scandal keep spreading and some investors will have viewed the yesterday’s performance by the Murdochs with concern. However, it’s a UK story for now and shareholders won’t be abandoning ship or calling for beheadings unless it spreads to the United States. After all, as CNN notes, the share price is up 8 per cent compared to a year ago.

But it’s the reputational damage for Murdoch and his newspapers caused by this story which may cause the mogul more concern. Closing the News of the World, a decision which doesn’t seem to have cost the Murdochs any lost sleep, has not killed the story. In fact, it’s probably given it more oxygen as a bewildering cast of characters (come on down Paul McMullan and make sure you’re wearing that suit) have roamed the landscape talking about the ins and outs – and occasionally rights and wrongs – of hacking and blagging.

We have seen celebrities who’ve been the focus of tabloid stories like Hugh Grant, George Michael and Steve Coogan take up the fight against their former tormentors. The public have applauded their actions, but the public only really began to pay attention when the story moved beyond celebrities and footballers to innocents like Milly Dowler and the 7/7 bombing victims, which is probably not great news for the celeb-class in the long run.

The public outrage at what happened at the News of the World has not spread to News International’s other titles as sales remain steady, which is probably something they’re keeping a close eye on back at base. This may change if other scandals come to the fore and bring these titles into play, though there’s yet little evidence to back up whispers of stories like Mudoch reporters hacking the phones of 9/11 victims’ families. There are, of course, many other angles which will now be pursued (one will probably be the relationship between policemen and journalists) and it will be interesting to see if such investiagions bring other newspapers into the loop.

Back to the emperor. Murdoch must wish that the pieman had intervened at the start of yesterday’s session, thus saving him a couple of hours of hard questioning and feeble explanations. Instead, we got to see the man behind the myths and machinations without the spin and the subterfuge and it wasn’t very edifying for the fabled veteran newspaperman. It’s all change for Murdoch and his circle and something they’re going to have to get used to. Certainly, Murdoch’s days of getting a grand welcome at the prime minister’s gaff seem over for now, even if he turns up at the back-door.

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