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For Murdoch, Concerns His Great Empire Is ‘Under Serious Threat’

When Rupert Murdoch took the stand Thursday in the second day of a U.K. media ethics inquiry, he coupled an apology for News of the World’s “blot” on his News Corp record with accusations that journalists had covered up the phone-hacking. Ray Suarez and The New York Times’ John Burns discuss the media mogul’s testimony.

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    Ray Suarez takes it from there.


    John Burns has been covering the inquiry for The New York Times and joins me now.

    And, John, we heard Rupert Murdoch say that he had failed, that he was sorry, but then number himself and senior News Corp. management among the victims of what was going on at his papers. How is this latest testimony going down in Britain?

  • JOHN BURNS, The New York Times:

    Well, there are pretty wide reactions.

    I think there was fascination to begin with — for millions of television viewers, this was covered live on his nemesis, the BBC, his principle, if you will, adversary in the broadcasting business. I think there was fascination with seeing center stage under the klieg lights, if you will, a man who's had enormous influence in this country for the last 30 or 40 years who has never before been put on the stage like that.

    People will, of course — many people will have doubts as to the authenticity of what he had to say. They will say, well, he would say that, wouldn't he? But he put forward a — if you will, a scenario that has a certain kind of potential credibility about it. He was, although he denied it, the Sun king.

    He started out scrapping in the newsroom. He's an ink-stained wretch who went from a small Australian provincial newspaper to being the head of the largest media conglomerate in the world, $60 billion of assets. And he transferred himself to the United States. He got involved with FOX Television, 20th Century Fox.

    And, basically, he's saying that he took his eye off this ball. He made, shall we say, at least a case that had some sort of credibility to it. We will only know, of course, as the criminal investigation goes on whether there's a smoking gun there. But if there is, there was no sight of it at the hearing today.


    People have seen Rupert Murdoch testify already, grilled by members of Parliament, but this was a judiciary inquiry. Was he under oath? Could things that he said during this latest questioning be used in other criminal cases?


    Well, he was under oath, but there's an important distinction here.

    That parliamentary committee that he faced last July with his son James, the head of the British media interests at the time, was relatively brief. It was — the main headline that came out of it was when a protester got in there and threw a foam cream pie at him, which generated, at least briefly, a certain amount of sympathy. He's an 81-year-old man.

    But the investigation at that time, the questioning wasn't particularly forensic. British legislators don't have the kind of staff or budget that people on Capitol Hill have. This was a separate inquiry. This was a broader inquiry into, as they say, the culture, ethics and practices of the British press.

    It is specifically precluded from trying to get to the heart of the criminal investigation for the very simple reason that that is, in effect, subjudice. Criminal charges appear to be pending against at least 11 of the 50 people that — give or take — with links to the Murdoch tabloids who have been arrested and questioned in this affair.

    So there wasn't any attempt by the council or by Lord Justice Leveson to go to that today. But the question was very forensic in another sense, going to the power that Rupert Murdoch has, going to the influence he has over politicians, going to perhaps what he should have known given the dominant position he holds in this company.

    Those are the sorts of questions. And it was fascinating.


    Were there any important disclosures coming out of this testimony? And whether there were or not, does it look like Rupert Murdoch is done, perhaps out of personal jeopardy, at least for this round?


    Well, I wouldn't be surprised.

    He's been here 10 days preparing for this. It would be tremendously stressful for anybody. He's a fairly thick-skinned man, by all accounts, but still the burden he has borne — I don't want to sound too sympathetic here, because what his newspapers or the News of the World particularly did was, of course, as he put himself, a great blot on his reputation.

    But I think he must have felt a great sense of relief that the seven hours were done, and he might, I would have thought, very well head for the airport and get on his plane and fly back to New York with his wife and — tonight.

    Did he get away with it? Did he get away with anything? We can't know what's going to come with the criminal investigation. But I think what he did was, he put Rupert Murdoch, at least the Rupert Murdoch that wants the public to know, on the stage, and he did it fairly effectively.

    He was tough, practical, unsentimental. He's deeply anti-establishment and has become the establishment. And he was at times engagingly charming, frank, you know admitting what had to be admitted, that he made a huge mistake, he should have closed down the News of the World years before he had.

    In fact, I think at one point he implied he should never have bought it. And I think — I had the strong impression that Rupert Murdoch sees a, sort of in King Lear style, that there is no recovery ultimately from this for him. There's a question as to whether his family can maintain control now of the News Corporation. And I think he see this is great empire that he built under serious threat.


    John Burns of The New York Times talking to us from London, good to talk to you, John.


    Thank you, Ray.

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