When The Murdochs Were In The Dock


On 14 July James Murdoch was given an envelope requiring him and his father Rupert to appear before a House of Commons select committee. The day before, they had been asked to and said they had other appointments that could not be put off. The letter, from the House of Commons Sergeant at Arms, changed that priority.

That day Neil Wallis, a former News of the World executive editor, became the ninth employee of that paper to be arrested, and the FBI began to investigate allegations that 9/11 emails had been bugged or hacked by Murdoch news or broadcasting companies.

Rupert and Rebekah dared a news conference of which the eminent lawyer and media star Geoffrey Robertson wrote:

“Will Rupert be arrested? ‘Be ye ever so high, the law is above you’ is the great principle that embodies the rule of law. Should it now require Murdoch's detention in custody for long enough to assist police with their inquiries?…

“But police inquiries in Britain rarely get to the truth: suspects and potential witnesses have a right not to answer police questions, and no duty to tell the truth if they do.

“The incompetence of Scotland Yard in political cases was on display to all when its senior officers attended a parliamentary committee and apologised for their behaviour back in 2006, when they failed to look at eleven hundred pages of evidence because News International told them they would find nothing. What they would have found were the names of four thousand victims of the ruthless News of the World hacker, Glenn Mulcaire.

“The police were guilty of abject failures in elemental detection work and a forelock-tugging acceptance of anything News told them.

“But this is Britain, whose police force has not advanced much since Shakespeare's Constable Dogberry. There are no special prosecutors, as in the US: Conrad Black could never have been held to account in Britain, where, other than in terrorist crime, sophisticated white-collar criminals run rings around PC Plod. So nobody (other than the Prime Minister) believes a police inquiry is capable of getting to the bottom of this scandal.”

That same day Rebekah Brooks resigned.

The dam had broken, and Lord Puttnam, maker of Chariots of Fire, said the Murdoch papers were like the The Sopranos. Andreas Wittham-Smith, formerly editor of the Independent, said he had begun to threaten British society as the Mafia threatened Italy. Polly Toynbee in The Guardian said the current crusade against Murdoch broke Britain’s “omerta” – the Mafia code of silence.

Everywhere it was whispered he was being overthrown, like the Arab dictators, because he had, like them, for so long, for so many years, abused his power.

Murdoch called much of what was said of him “total lies” and dismissed claims that News Corp was considering selling or separating off its newspaper assets as “pure and total rubbish”.

Les Hinton resigned on 16 July. “I have watched with sorrow,” he said from New York (where he was publisher-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal), “as the News of the World story has unfolded. That I was ignorant of what apparently happened is irrelevant, and, in the circumstances, I feel it is proper for me to resign from News Corp and apologise to those hurt by the actions of the News of the World.

“We are sorry,” Murdoch wrote that day, after accepting Brooks’ and Hinton’s resignations. “The News of the World is in the business of holding others to account. It failed when it came to itself.”

He met Milly Dowler’s parents, and “held his head in his hands” as he apologised to them too, in a meeting in a London hotel. “He was very humbled,” Mr Dowler said, “he was very shaken, and he was very sincere.”

He came out of the hotel and a handful of protesters called out “Shame on you!”

On 17 July Murdoch’s daughter said, or was reported to have said, that Mrs Brooks had “fucked the company”. David Cameron cut short a state visit to Africa and flew home to confront the widening news of his closeness to Brooks and the Murdochs. A former News of the World reporter, Sean Hoare, was found dead in his home. He it was who had said Andy Coulson was “fully aware” of the phone hacking. The police said, a little carefully, that they did not “initially regard the death as suspicious”.

The New York Times noted, however, that Hoare’s statement had been the reason why they had reopened the case, and the whole thing was falling down around Murdoch now.

The same day Sir Paul Stephenson, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, abruptly resigned.

On 18 July Rebekah Brooks was arrested, over several things including her “payments to police”.

Murdoch, father and son, looked both apprehensive and dignified, confident and respectful and scared as they were sworn in and invited by the Chairman, John Whittingdale, to sit down. It became quickly clear they had brought with them two expertly written 30-minute speeches with which they hoped to bore the television audiences, which was numbered in scores of millions, into turning them off and going back to The Simpsons or Two and a Half Men or the cricket or the golf.

And they were quickly told they could make no opening statements. This rattled Rupert, who was dismayed by this loss of his freedom to obfuscate, something he did well, and a minute after James began answering questions, he, interrupting, said, “I would just like to say one sentence. This is the most humble day of my life.”

It seemed an odd thing to say, without context, but it was clearly the first sentence of his prepared and copiously rehearsed speech, and he knew – as a headline-writing newspaperman of course he knew – that these would be the words most reported, worldwide, of the interrogation.

On 7 November James Murdoch again faced questioning by the House of Commons committee. It seemed to them he had lied when he said his newspaper’s hacking had been just a couple of rogue reporters unknown to him at the time, since Tom Crone, the company lawyer, and Colin Myler, the last editor of the News of the World, swore on oath he had seen an email – the infamous “For Neville” email – which spoke of wider hacking. For some then watching television, the Jim Carrey-like twitches on James’ hyperactive face were a joy to behold.

He had, moreover, agreed to pay out the Soccer Cup CEO Gordon Taylor, with nearly a million dollars for "privacy infringement" when his phone had been hacked, the largest payment in world history, if Taylor would keep silence about it. James said he could not recall ratifying that payment.

This was in 2008. But “no documents were shown to me or given to me,” he said, not then, not later. Yet Crone and Myler said they had talked to him about it and sworn this on oath.

The net, it seemed, was tightening. The committee could have imprisoned him in a dungeon under the House of Commons pending trial for this apparent deception of Her Majesty’s Government, but chose, for some reason, to let him go.

This is an edited extract from The Year It All Fell Down, written by Bob Ellis with Damian Spruce and Stephen Ramsey.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.