Analysis

The Murdoch Roast: Rupert sizzles on the stand

rupertmodule

The real story of Rupert Murdoch's appearance before the Leveson Inquiry in London's High Court is the old fox is alive and kicking.

Rupert may be 81, but he's still sharp, funny and a force. And he's so much smarter and more convincing than any of the sons, daughters or American executives who might replace him.

It's rare you get an opportunity to see a Murdoch on the rack, and it's even rarer to see two of the family grilled on consecutive days. But it makes you understand why there's a succession problem. None of Rupert's potential heirs are in his class. Certainly not James, who looked stitched up and naïve, and appeared to have swallowed a business dictionary when he hit the stand on Tuesday. And certainly not Lachlan, whose appearances in the witness box over One.Tel coincided with a catastrophic loss of memory.

Rupert doesn't bother with any of that. He talks like his tabloids—in short, direct sentences—and he leaves you in no doubt about what he's thinking. "I'm afraid I don't have much subtlety about me," he told his interrogator, Robert Jay QC, at one point. "I'm not good at holding my tongue," he offered at another.

Nor was there much wrong with his recall of key events. Sure, his memory failed when it suited him, but he was able to describe with extraordinary clarity the dates and processes by which his newspapers had backed Britain's would-be prime ministers over the last 30 years. Typically, these involved him taking the decision; always he was at centre stage.

And centre stage is where the world's most powerful media mogul is clearly most comfortable, facing his accusers and telling them they're wrong. There was no squirming for Rupert. He was there to attack.

"I take a particularly strong pride in the fact that we have never pushed our commercial interests in our newspapers," he proclaimed, in one of several big denials on offer.

"I've never asked a prime minister for anything," was another mantra he kept repeating.

"I don't know many politicians," was a third, although perhaps because he only bothers with the ones that really matter. ..

The proposition Murdoch was asked to deny is that he backs politicians with his newspapers and gets favours in return, such as permission to take over The Times, or pledges from Tony Blair in 1997 that he wouldn't tighten the cross-media laws (followed by watered-down laws six years later), and most recently, a nod and wink on the BSkyB merger from Cameron's Conservatives.

Murdoch's response to all this, as Robert Jay QC led him through a cavalcade of meetings with PMs and decisions that went his way, was to say it was all nonsense: he only ever talked to leaders like Tony Blair about the issues, such as Afghanistan, for example.

"I want to say, Mr Jay, that I, in 10 years of his power, never asked Mr Blair for anything. Nor indeed did I receive any favours. If you want to check that, I think you should call him."

Rupert did offer that Blair had phoned him on his birthday, and we now know the ex-PM is godfather to daughter Grace, which was uncovered when Wendi Deng dropped the bombshell in an interview last year. But despite his self-confessed lack of subtlety and inability to hold his tongue, Rupert had somehow got through an entire decade without asking for the smallest thing.

Naturally, he could not recall Blair promising at a 1997 meeting that he would not tighten media laws, as the PM's press secretary Alastair Campbell claimed in his diaries.

And he flat-out denied telling Andrew Neil, editor of his Sunday Times from 1984 to 1993, to go easy on Maggie T when she finally lost support, warning him, "We owe Thatcher a lot as a company."

The story Rupert asked us to believe is that he met Britain's leaders regularly, wrote nice things to their wives, admired their children, popped in for tea, lunch, dinner or a chat at least a couple of times a year, yet never did anything so base as to mention his commercial interests.

His most remarkable claim was that he never lobbied Thatcher over his 1981 bid for The Times, which she decided not to refer to the Monopolies & Mergers Commission. It was recently revealed that he lunched with her at the PM's country house, Chequers, at his request, three weeks before the bid was approved. 

 So what did they talk about? He merely informed her that he was planning to purchase "a great iconic asset", he claims.

So, had he asked her to wave the bid through? "I have never asked a prime minister for anything", he repeated.

He gave the same answer in relation to Britain's current prime minister, David Cameron, who flew to Santorini in the Aegean in 2008 to say G'day to Rupert on his yacht and ask for the mogul's support. According to Murdoch, the would-be PM trekked all that way, but they never talked about politics. Nor did they when Cameron came to a family party at his daughter Elisabeth's home in the grounds of Blenheim Palace. And they never, ever, talked about media policy, despite meeting privately on seven occasions between 2008 and 2010.

We may hear more on Rupert's relations with Cameron tomorrow, when he will be back in the box. And it could be interesting. That huge cache of emails between News International and the office of Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt—about which Rupert's son James was questioned on Tuesday—suggests others at News were more than happy to do the asking, lobbying and bargaining for him.

Those explosive emails apart, there was no smoking gun, no real hard evidence, and no way of penetrating the mogul's denials.

Occasionally, there was a small chink in his armour. For example, he denied lobbying Cameron about the BBC, but admitted raising the subject with a whole string of prime ministers, who had not listened to him. But mostly it was his word against the published memoirs of former players in the political game, plus of course the general implausibility of his claim that he never took advantage of the power he possessed.

Later, Murdoch's evidence on various matters was challenged by ex-PM Gordon Brown, who accused him of inventing a telephone conversation, and by one of his ex-editors, Harold Evans, who branded him "comic and sad" and accused him of "spectacular displays of imagination".

But there was little doubt about who won the day.

Nor was there any doubt about who'll be running his media empire for the foreseeable future. In a message his US executives will doubtless have noticed, he confessed at one point, "I have no commercial interests except the newspapers. I love newspapers".

Did he not have a duty to his shareholders as well, he was asked? "They tell me so," he replied, "They'd like me to get rid of them all."

They can obviously keep dreaming about that one.


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