Rupert’s New Image Problem: Does Playing Clueless Make Him Look Doddering?

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Rupert and James Murdoch address Parliament.

Going into today's parliamentary hearing, the salient question about Rupert Murdoch was whether he could really have been ignorant of the nefarious practices at his British tabloid, given his famously hands-on management style: Was he complicit or clueless? But with his control of News Corp. hanging in the balance, the new debate is going to be whether Murdoch is merely playing the confused old man, or whether age has really begun to catch up with him.

It was clear that the game plan was for the senior Murdoch to cede the floor whenever possible to his son James, who tried to cut in when his father appeared at a loss. Father and son were a study in contrasts, with the son dancing around tough questions with a torrent of management-speak and a Nixonian verve for plausible deniability. The father, meanwhile, was grumbling and mumbling, jowls and age spots prominent, ear cocked at an angle familiar to anyone who's spent time trying to converse with an old, deaf relative. He didn't two-step around the tough questions — he stumbled hard, pausing for long, painful seconds, and sometimes contradicting himself.

It was a striking reversal of roles — prior to the eruption of the hacking scandal, James was seen as the savvy heir apparent to the Murdoch empire, but Rupert's preeminence has never been in question. So it's hard not to wonder whether wily old Rupert has settled on a Vinny the Chin defense: feigning age-addled incompetence rather than admitting guilt or something close to it.

At one point, in an attempt to distance himself from the allegation that he was in such close contact with Rebekah Brooks that there was no way he wouldn't have known about the wrongdoing, Rupert found himself saying, "I'm not really in touch." He quickly reversed course, realizing how bad that sounded. Any shareholder or board member watching that performance — and recalling financial misjudgments at News Corp., like the ill-advised acquisitions of MySpace and Dow Jones — must have been left wondering whether "I'm not really in touch" was the most honest thing Rupert Murdoch said all day. And his public image as a ruthless, daring corporate executive who is not to be crossed has certainly taken a hit — not to mention the actual hit he took from a pie-wielding comedian, which makes him more sympathetic, but certainly not scary.

The question, of course, is whether any of that will matter: The Murdochs appear not to have said anything incriminating today, and as long as they continue to control the majority of voting shares in News Corp., they will stay in charge of the company. News Corp. stock rose 5 percent as the hearing took place. Bad as today's performance was, it may prove to be the moment at which the tide of the scandal turns in their favor.