It was nine months ago that Rupert and James Murdoch first sat before the British parliament to explain all of the things they “didn’t know” about the phone-hacking scandal, although the pie incident from that day remains far more memorable than anything the embattled media moguls actually said. This week, father and son are due to appear again, this time separately, with James taking the hot seat today at the Leveson Inquiry and diligently repeating the same refrain he’s sang many times before: The “ethical risk was something that was very much in the hands of the editor,” he told the committee this morning. “I wasn’t in the business of deciding what to put into the newspaper.”
For a time, James was the head of the family’s British newspapers, a position he’s since resigned, along with his spot as chairman of the BSkyB board, among others. Although e-mail evidence has indicated that he approved an early phone-hacking settlement with hopes of concealing the widespread nature of the practice, James maintained that there was no cover-up and has attempted to minimize his role. He didn’t change course today.
“The newsroom governance was really an issue for the editor and the legal manager,” he said. “There wasn’t a pro-active desire to bring me up to speed on these things.” Murdoch claimed that if he knew of the wrongdoing, he would have “cut out the cancer.”
At the center of this morning’s testimony was also the Murdochs’ relationship with politicians. “I just don’t think there’s the very old-fashioned view of big media proprietors being able to dominate the landscape, I just think that’s not the case anymore,” Murdoch insisted, despite the family’s documented chumminess with Prime Minister David Cameron and culture minister Jeremy Hunt. (As News Corp. attempted to increase their ownership of BSkyB, a bid withdrawn in the wake of the scandal, Hunt was supposed to be overseeing the deal.). Murdoch said he prefers to think of his close relationships with politicians as “legitimate advocacy,” not an unfair advantage over competitors.
“I’m genuinely not too sure how far Leveson can push it in terms of the relationship between media owners and politicians without its snowballing into an inquiry about politics,” one expert said before today’s hearing. “I wonder when it started whether David Cameron really thought it was going to turn into this wide-ranging inquiry about how we conduct politics. It’s gone far beyond newspapers doing dodgy things.” Additionally, as the Times notes, the inquiry “is not supposed to touch on matters that bear directly on individual criminal investigations that have arisen from the scandal.”
As a result, damning revelations have been few and far between in the multiple rounds of Murdoch testimony, but outside of parliament, arrests continue to pile up, as do the civil suits and number of “likely” phone-hacking victims. So while the committee report on media ethics is due at the start of next month — with Rupert’s forthcoming testimony as a grand finale of sorts — we’ve heard these same denials from James Murdoch before, and his gradual repositioning within his father’s company is already well under way.
Update: E-mails published by the committee as evidence today detail the lobbying effort during the potential BSkyB takeover, including a message from News Corp. public affairs executive Frédéric Michel to Murdoch describing Culture Secretary Hunt’s testimony to Parliament the following day. In the e-mail, Michel noted that having the advanced info was “absolutely illegal.” The message is front-page news in Wednesday’s Telegraph, and some are already calling for Hunt’s resignation:
Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, demanded his resignation. “Jeremy Hunt should have been standing up for the interests of the British people,” he said. “In fact, it now turns out he was standing up for the interests of the Murdochs.
“He cannot stay in his post. And if he refuses to resign, the Prime Minister must show some leadership and fire him.”
Another message from Michel mentioned “a very constructive conversation” with Hunt that he said could mean “game over for the opposition.”
This post has been updated throughout.