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Connoisseurs of free entertainment began gathering outside London’s Royal Courts of Justice in the pouring rain early on Wednesday for the opportunity to see another scene in The Fall of the Murdoch Empire.
Not everyone went away happy. Nine months ago, at the start of the phone-hacking crisis, the chairman and chief executive of News Corp sat before a House of Commons committee as a ga-ga old gent. This is not normally a reversible condition but, hell, we have under-estimated him yet again. His wife must have been feeding him the rejuvenation pills.
Mr Murdoch spent four hours being interrogated before the Leveson inquiry on press standards, set up when the phone-hacking scandal at one of his British tabloids broke last year. And it was the inquiry’s counsel, Robert Jay, who cried for mercy and asked to break off in mid-afternoon.
Ga-ga? Rupert? Eyes bright, sharp as a tack – and in control of the situation. “I hope I’m like that at 81,” said a young man in the public gallery. Normally a barrister on his feet cuts an intimidatory figure when cross-examining a seated witness. This time Mr Jay looked like a supplicant backing away from the boss’s desk.
His main aim was to show that Mr Murdoch had used his dominant role in the British newspaper market to exercise influence on politicians, particularly to benefit his business interests.
Mr Murdoch arrived with various strategies to deflect this. There were lots of pauses for thought, but these were not vacant pauses; he was selecting which trick to employ – humorous self-deprecation, cleverness, mock-stupidity or sheer brass-neck brazenness.
The self-deprecation was fun. Mr Jay noted: “Some recent tweets of yours betray a hostile approach to rightwingers and toffs,” which is presumed to be a coded reference to David Cameron and his Cabinet. “Ach, don’t take my tweets too seriously,” came the reply.
Sometimes the witness did get the strategies somewhat muddled. One of the crucial elements in this story is how the Thatcher government was persuaded to waive all the regulations to allow Mr Murdoch to take over The Times and Sunday Times in 1981. He could not remember having any such meeting with Mrs Thatcher but seemed to have an astonishing grip on what might have been discussed.
And the brazenness did get a bit much. “I take a particularly strong pride in the fact that we have never pushed our commercial interests in our newspapers,” he solemnly announced at a fairly early stage. A titter was heard in the press seats. The aim of his papers, he said, was “always to tell the truth”. (Another titter.)
“I never let my commercial interests, whatever they are, enter into any consideration of elections.” (Same again.) “Some papers you can recognise as having very strong Conservative roots and some very strong Labour roots, but you can’t say that of the Sun. I think we’re perhaps the only independent newspaper in the business.” (And again.)
Mr Jay failed to point out that there have been eight elections since The Sun, Mr Murdoch’s flagship, became Britain’s best selling paper in the late 1970s. His “team” – the Conservatives five times and Labour three – has won every time.
But in this case it is someone else’s opinion that counts: Lord Justice Leveson will decide what goes into his report. He certainly looked rather weary on Wednesday, far wearier than the witness. But he does have wonderfully expressive eyebrows and he did keep arching them quizzically. It was noticeable that Mr Murdoch, happy to toy with the barrister like a cat with a baby mouse, kept sir-ring the judge Uriah Heepishly.
We shall see in due courses the long-term consequences of all this for Murdochian influence in Britain. But for now he is the Comeback Kid. “Mr Murdoch, I am certainly beginning to flag,” said Mr Jay finally, hoping for an early getaway. “Whether you are or not, I don’t think matters.” The witness shrugged, the judge pronounced. “Mr Murdoch, this is my decision. I think we’ve probably had enough today.” It seemed like the only point Mr Jay won all day.