The Big Takeaways From This Week’s Murdoch Testimony

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What led to this week’s testimony in the first place? Watch our film Murdoch’s Scandal for essential background on News Corp. and its founder, media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

This week, both James and Rupert Murdoch testified in front of the Leveson inquiry, a government-mandated investigation into British press standards prompted by the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.

The headlines following the elder Murdoch’s testimony ring of apologies and admissions; while Rupert admitted he wasn’t paying close attention to the goings on at News of the World, he danced a fine line between taking responsibility and pointing fingers at those he says he trusted with the paper — former editor Colin Myler (who’s now editor at the New York Daily News) and former legal manager Tom Crone in particular. Crone’s reaction, and that of other former NOTW staffers, was predictably angry.

Lead inquiry attorney Robert Jay also grilled both Rupert and James on their perceived cozy relationship with British government — a charge Rupert denied. A major bombshell came during Jay’s questioning of James, during which the lawyer revealed damning emails showing what appeared to be a back-channel relationship between a News Corp. official and Jeremy Hunt — the culture secretary and Conservative member of Parliament who was supposed to be the government’s impartial arbitrator of a possible BSkyB buyout by News Corp. (The bid failed after The Guardian broke the Milly Dowler phone hacking story last July.) Members of Parliament have called for Hunt to step down; to date the only casualty has been the resignation of his special adviser, Adam Smith.  Hunt says he’ll hand over additional text messages and emails soon.

So what are the implications of this crazy week of Murdoch testimony?

We asked some of the people who have been reporting on News Corp. and the media for years – even live-Tweeting the hearings at 5 a.m. — for their thoughts on key moments from the testimony and what it means for the future of Murdoch’s empire.

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Vanity Fair’s Sarah Ellison, author of the book War at the Wall Street Journal (follow her @Sarahlellison for ongoing Murdoch coverage):

Rupert and James both survived their Leveson appearances, but they may have planted some time bombs. They certainly managed to draw some attention away from themselves and train the camera on British politicians. James Murdoch said, for the first time, that he had had a “tiny side conversation” about regulatory clearance for News Corp,’s bid for the portion of BSkyB it didn’t own with British prime minister David Cameron. The relationship [between] Cameron and the Murdochs has been a topic of great mystery, and James’s admission could open the door for Leveson to ask more questions.

“The most immediate impact of the Leveson inquiry this week has been to turn attention to the British government.” -Sarah Ellison

Britain’s culture minister, Jeremy Hunt, became one of the biggest headlines of the Murdochs’ testimonies. Emails between one of his aides and a News Corp. lobbyist appear to show Hunt working to get News Corp.’s BSkyB deal approved, even though he was supposed to be an independent regulatory arbiter. A key moment in James’s testimony came when he had to explain an email that seemed to relay market-sensitive information about Hunt’s thinking from News Corp.’s lobbyist, who noted that it was “absolutely illegal … !” to do so. When asked, Murdoch said the “illegal” quote was a “joke.” Hunt’s aide resigned over the matter, and Hunt himself is fighting for his, and his boss David Cameron’s, political life.

Rupert Murdoch conceded that the phone-hacking scandal had done its damage. “It is a blot on my reputation for the rest of my life.” But he said he was the “victim” of a coverup, not its perpetrator, and he blamed, as he has done in the past, his underlings. “I do blame one or two people …  someone took charge of a cover-up we were victim to, and I regret that,” he said. He mentioned a “clever lawyer and drinking pal of the journalists.” In response, Tom Crone, a former attorney at the News of the World for 20 years, released his own statement, saying that Murdoch’s comments could “only refer to me.” He continued: “His assertion that I ‘took charge of a cover-up’ in relation to phone-hacking is a shameful lie.”

Lying under oath is no small matter, in Britain or in the U.S.,  and Leveson will puzzle out as best he can who is telling him the truth. But the most immediate impact of the Leveson inquiry this week has been to turn attention to the British government. If Murdoch is being dragged through the mud by the phone-hacking crisis, he is taking at least a few politicians with him.

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David Folkenflik, NPR’s media correspondent who recently reported a series on Rupert Murdoch’s media roots in Australia (follow him @davidfolkenflik for his continuing coverage of News Corp.):

Rupert Murdoch’s testimony was fascinating to watch for those who have followed this scandal. He was alternately revealing and disingenuous, deflecting and resolute, assertive and dismissive. He also contained multitudes — which is to say, he frequently contradicted himself. …

The exchange that will undoubtedly get the lion’s share of attention came when Murdoch, early in the second day of testimony, uttered that magical phrase with echoes of Watergate – “cover-up.” It arrived in response to a question about how much he and senior News Corp. executives did to learn “to what extent this cancer was prevalent in the organization.” (The metaphor of cancer was itself taken from remarks of Murdoch’s son James yet contains its own Watergate allusions.)

“His remark incorporates Rupert Murdoch’s conviction that he and his son and the now disgraced former executive Rebekah Brooks have been victims, too.” -David Folkenflik

Murdoch’s reply: “I think the senior executives were all … misinformed and shielded from anything that was going on there… [T]here’s no question in my mind that maybe even the editor, but certainly beyond that someone took charge of a cover-up, which we were victim to and I regret.”

Headlines busily spent the morning writing themselves. Rupert Murdoch was accusing the News of the World’s top editor and its top lawyer — his own executives — of participating in the concealment of widespread criminality. (They have denied that, saying they shared the evidence with the younger Murdoch.)

His remark incorporates Rupert Murdoch’s conviction that he and his son and the now disgraced former executive Rebekah Brooks have been victims, too, and that the Murdochs are the ones to set this straight. Few outside the company are so convinced.

Perhaps more striking, however, is Murdoch’s repeated allegiance to the daily Sun tabloid. Murdoch said Thursday he should have killed the Sunday tabloid the News of the World years ago in favor of a Sunday edition for the Sun, instead of waiting to do so after the hacking scandal erupted last summer.

The Sun of course is brash and even punishing, a cheeky mix of political controversy, celebrity and royals gossip, sport, pop culture, and bare-breasted page three models. It reflects much of Murdoch’s interest in appealing to populist center-right working class. But it appeals to a persuadable reader — that is, voter — as well.

“I’ve tried to distinguish, throughout this, the difference between the Sun and the News of the World,” Murdoch told his chief antagonist, Robert Jay, on Thursday. “You lump them together all the time and I think it’s grossly unfair to the Sun.”

Yet the tabloid would currently appear to be far from a beacon of rectitude.

A dozen journalists linked to the Sun have been arrested on charges linked to public corruption — that is, bribing public officials, including police officials, employees of the British defense ministry, and active-duty military personnel. You barely heard about that during the Leveson inquiry questioning of the Murdochs. Slipping a fiver to a copper — as my NPR colleague Phil Reeves in London has pointed out — is a tradition stretching back to Dickens’ time. These charges have not stirred the same outrage within the British public as the hundreds of phone hacking incidents substantiated by police.

To American eyes these would appear to be serious charges too.

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Finally, it’s worth reading Michael Wolff’s analysis in The Guardian, in which he deftly describes Murdoch’s performance as “the unlikely hero of his own remarkable saga, defending his enterprise against the establishment peanut gallery, always resisting the easier strategy to kowtow or conform.” While Murdoch was challenged, Wolff says we didn’t come away with any answers. Instead, he characterized the questioning as “the lame effort to get to the root of hacking.”

In the end, he suggests, we still don’t know what Rupert Murdoch knew — if anything — and when he knew it.

Photo: Rupert Murdoch gives evidence Inquiry into press regulation and phone hacking, conducted by Lord Justice Leveson, Royal Courts of Justice, London. (Rex Features via AP Images)
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