The Columbia Journalism Review has decided that Rupert Murdoch didn’t so much as testify in front of the U.K.’s Leveson Inquiry last week, instead the media mogul put on a smashing performance. No disagreement here with that analysis. But what part was he playing?
Some believe he was playing a realistic but less powerful version of himself — a harried and slightly out of touch media mogul trying to stay current with the broad outlines of his global empire who was also victimized by the current scandal. But here’s an argument that he was playing a real character, in this case, the Cheshire Cat.
First, start with the wry smile Murdoch maintained through most of two days of questioning. Very catlike. Next, his clever sense of humor was on display. Not only did he confirm he made an analogy about his relationship to former Prime Minister Tony Blair as two porcupines making love, but he also said of Blair: “If he wanted my opinion he only had to read editorials in The Sun.” Was he toying with Lord Justice Brian Leveson and lead counsel Robert Jay or just making them foils to set up his next quip? Finally, his sense of dramatic timing was keen. Jay asks Murdoch, if he and former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and former President Ronald Reagan were all fellow ideological travelers, implying they helped each other shape the world to their conservative ideals. Murdoch gives a long pause before saying that is a fair assessment. Murdoch’s pause attempts to erase decades of media analysis and claim new ground as if this were some revelation or theory created last week. At this point, the real Murdoch is doing a great job of erasing himself right on television. By the end of his testimony, he had deflected all responsibility in the phone hacking scandal (except to say he should have become more involved earlier to root out the ethical cancer of one key reporter), claimed he did not have the power to ask favors of prime ministers (and never had), and despite the claims that he is a micro-manager of the highest order from his former employees, he created the image of a slightly removed CEO of News Corp. dependent upon less than competent managers, who really steered the second largest media company in the world. At this point, the real Murdoch had disappeared. Final magic trick accomplished. Invisible Cheshire Cat testifying.
The outlines of the phone hacking scandal and the Leveson Inquiry that it spawned are too huge for this post alone. (For more please see: “The Ethics of Hacking” and “Journalists & Hacking: The Scandal Grows.”) But this inquiry is perhaps the largest government examination of media ethics and behavior the U.K. has ever seen. The fallout from its findings will become major parts of the British regulatory structure that the government of David Cameron will be forced to enact as it attempts to extract itself from this mess of being seen as Murdoch’s lackeys. (Prime Minister Cameron actually disputed that Murdoch had never asked for favors last week, and an aide to Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt was forced out when e-mails were discovered painting the aide as a conduit for information between the government and Murdoch’s holdings.) What the Leveson Inquiry finds will resonate globally not just because it is aimed primarily at Murdoch’s empire, but because the world is watching as one of its most powerful figures is scrutinized and questioned. And right behind this inquiry, other British investigations are lined up to make recommendations just as the U.S. Department of Justice wades into its own investigation.
If the clever 81-year-old Murdoch, who has lost none of his deft touch, escapes this scandal with himself, his family and his empire relatively unscathed, then the world will see he has succeeded in his command performance. And we can all come to understand what type of Alice in Wonderland landscape media law and ethics have become in an age of unchecked corporate power.
(The photo is from C-SPAN’s coverage of the Levenson Inquiry; C-SPAN offers its media freely for the public interest and it is in the public domain. To see a report from Australia’s public broadcaster ABC on Murdoch’s testimony before the Leveson Inquiry, please check below.)