The Commons Select Committee's grilling of the Murdochs made compulsive TV viewing in London's Houses of Parliament this afternoon. Rupert Murdoch began by saying "This is the most humble day of my life," before he and son James answered a raft of questions about alleged illegal activities at the News of the World (NOTW).
Murdoch senior seemed to be unaware of much of what had occurred over the years since the phone hacking came to light in 2006, pointing out that NOTW represented just 1% of his company, the implication being that he was too busy to pay it much attention. There were embarrassingly long pauses before some of his answers and he looked imploringly at his son to fill the gaps at times but the interrogators wouldn't let him off the hook. Whether his seemingly poor memory was the result of old age or of convenience wasn't clear but he seemed staggeringly unaware of what happened, and when. For example apparently executives hadn't told him at the time about a half million pound plus out-of-court settlement with phone hacking victim Gordon Taylor, which was approved by James in 2008. And he said he'd never heard of Neville Thurlbeck, a NOTW journalist who had been accused of blackmail by a judge. It was like watching your grandfather trying to remember where he'd put his teeth. When asked if the problems at NOTW were his fault he said "No," and went on to add that he'd been let down by people he had trusted.
James, on the other hand, came across as sharp, polished, reasonable, humble and respectful. He addressed all the MPs politely by name, and indeed the Committee was very restrained and polite to the pair in return. But James also seemed hazy on a number of aspects of the affair which he might have been expected to know, such as who approved payments towards the legal costs of private detective Glenn Mulcaire. At one moment he looked like he might lurch into patronising sexism when, in answering a question from a female MP, he tried to compare company budgetting to managing a household budget, but perhaps realised he was digging a hole for himself and quickly cut short that comparison. It was one of the only things he cut short - his answers to some questions were so long that by the end it was hard to remember or care what the question had been. His father, by contrast, was monosyllabic whenever he could be.
One person who came out of the enquiry with an enhanced reputation was Rupert Murdoch's young wife Wendi. TV cameras showed a brief disturbance when a man splattered Mr Murdoch with a paper plate covered with shaving foam. Wendi jumped up and slapped the assailant hard in the face before she tumbled to the ground. She certainly beat James to the punch, who hesitated open-mouthed for a few seconds while his Dad was assaulted. The second fastest person to react was the BBC producer who quickly cut to a camera shot of what looked like zany striped wallpaper before then cutting to Andrew Neil and his fellow pundits in the studio, who dealt with the unexpected ten minute interlude with aplomb. As if the police haven't been embarrassed enough by their involvement in the affair they'll now have to answer questions about this serious breach in security.
The Murdochs behaved throughout with dignity, and apologised for NOTW's activities with what seemed like sincerity, but surely News Corp shareholders will be concerned about how detached and confused their elderly chairman appeared to be at times. He slipped on banana skins and then got hit by a custard pie.