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James Murdoch Lightly Grilled | The Nation

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D.D. Guttenplan

D.D. Guttenplan

 British politics and culture with an American accent.

James Murdoch Lightly Grilled

London

According to SEC filings, James Murdoch’s base salary as chief executive of News Corporation’s Asian and European operations was $3.4 million. He was also eligible for a performance bonus of between $6 and $12 million. And a further signing bonus of 400,000 shares of company stock—presumably to secure his services from the many rivals bidding for the talents of the Harvard dropout and failed hip-hop record producer.

Those figures are worth bearing in mind when considering Murdoch minor’s response to the admirably precise summary of Robert Jay, the attorney acting as lead inquisitor to the Leveson Inquiry into the culture practice and ethics of the press, which was set up in response to the scandal last summer over revelations that reporters on the News of the World had hacked into the voicemail of various celebrities, politicians and figures in British life. At the time the hacking took place James Murdoch was busy running the British broadcaster BSkyB, but one of the first tasks he faced when he took over News International, the family’s British newspaper interests, in December 2007 was to settle a lawsuit by Gordon Taylor, head of the British football players’ union, whose phone had been hacked. The Taylor claim was significant because it exploded News Corp.’s claim that phone hacking, which first hit the headlines here with the January 2007 arrest of News of the World royal correspondent Clive Goodman, had been limited to a lone “rogue reporter.” And in agreeing to a settlement of over $ 1 million James Murdoch was paying way over the odds, leading to suggestions that the payment was “hush money” to keep the scandal under wraps.

In July James told a parliamentary committee he had no idea what he was paying for when he signed off on the Taylor settlement. He stuck to his non-denial denials even after they were contradicted by the company’s former counsel and the News of the World’s former editor—and despite revelations that the company had sought to destroy millions of potentially incriminating e-mails.

“Either you were told about the evidence that linked others at the News of the World…and this was in effect a cover-up,” said Robert Jay, in which case Murdoch’s persistent denials amount to perjury. “Or you weren’t told and there was a failure of governance within the company.”

Jay’s day-long grilling of James Murdoch amounted to an elegant, and progressively restricting, series of variations on that theme. Watching both Murdochs bob and weave their way out of the inept grandstanding that too often characterized the parliamentary committee’s questions during the summer, it was impossible to avoid the thought that this was a job for a prosecutor, not a politician. And though there were few fireworks today—apart from the revelation of a secret back channel between the company and culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, which will probably cost Hunt his job—the forensic constriction of Jay’s questions left precious little room for Murdoch minor’s pretensions to either competence or probity. He may just about stay out of jail by claiming to be an idiot—which is not an option available to his father, who begins two days of testimony tomorrow morning.

The fundamental question for both Murdochs remains, What did they know, and when did they know it? But since the summer the list of crimes to be covered up just gets longer and longer. Besides invasion of privacy and perjury (in maintaining the “one rogue reporter” defense long after Murdoch executives were aware that the hacking culture was pervasive within the company), there is also extortion (muscling singer Charlotte Church out of her £100,000 fee to sing at Rupert’s wedding), destruction of evidence, bribery of police officers and other public officials, intimidation of witnesses and possibly even a connection to murder.

In the summer Labour MP Alan Keen tried to toss Rupert Murdoch a softball, saying, “You’ve been kept in the dark.” But the billionaire press baron refused to play ball: “Nobody kept me in the dark. Anything that’s seen as a crisis comes to me.”

Will Rupert repeat James’s claim—which provoked peals of laughter inside the overflow press tent—that “support of an individual newspaper for politicians one way or another is not something that I would ever link to a commercial transaction”? Does he share his son’s evident disgust that politicians and journalists who availed themselves “of the hospitality of my family for years” have proved such fickle friends? Tune in tomorrow and find out!

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