‘It won’t be pretty’ – father and son brace themselves for public grilling

The scheduled grilling of Rupert and James Murdoch by British MPs today will be a piece of high theatre or a dreary exercise in evasion. It might, in the end, come down to the kind of legal advice each side receives about how to navigate the legal minefield.
The main issue is what the law calls “sub judice”. When people have been arrested, their cases should not be publicly canvassed before they are heard in court, where all the proper rules will be in place and both sides can test the evidence.
This means the Murdochs might be able to refuse to answer many questions, for fear of prejudicing all the phone-hacking and bribery cases under police investigation.
The former News International chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, may escape appearing altogether given that she has now been arrested.
The two Murdochs have reportedly spent the weekend closeted with public relations advisers along with their lawyers. The PR advice, experts speculated at the weekend, would range from “sit up straight” – if you sit crooked, you look crooked, apparently – to “make eye contact”.
They might use the air-time to apologise again for hacking. After steadfastly refusing to for more than a week, the company ran full-page advertisements in the national press at the weekend.
In terms of the Murdoch agenda, Rupert has said that he wants to address “some of the things that have been said in Parliament, some of which are total lies … We think it’s important to absolutely establish our integrity in the eyes of the public … I felt that it’s best just to be as transparent as possible.”
The MPs on the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee were reportedly considering placing the Murdochs under oath. Lying under oath to the Parliament would be contempt and would attract penalties such as fines, or even, theoretically, a stint in the long-unused parliamentary cell.
The more likely outcome of any impropriety, however, would be grounds to challenge the Murdochs as “fit and proper” holders of media licences.
The most pressing questions for James Murdoch are why he authorised payments of hundreds of thousands of pounds to hacking victims – was it to buy their silence? How could he not have had the full picture, as he claims, when he signed the documents?
The Guardian reports that Rupert Murdoch was quoted as saying no such payment had been made.
Did his son conceal it from him, and if so, why? And how did the company come to mislead the Parliament last time it faced questioning, when executives promised this was the work of one rogue reporter?
That line was held by the former chief executive Les Hinton, who resigned from Dow Jones last week; the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson; the editor Colin Myler; and Tom Crone, then News International’s senior lawyer and another one recently resigned from the Murdoch empire.
Paul Farrelly, a Labour MP on the committee, said: “We are going to ask James Murdoch which of the people who came in front of us, as far as he knows, told us the truth.”
The MPs might also want to know why a large stash of the company’s hacking-related emails, dating back to 2006, was only given to police in January. Both the Murdochs are likely to be asked when it was that they realised phone hacking and other illicit activities had been widespread, who they knew to be involved in it and what they had done about it once they found out.
In the unlikely event that Rebekah Brooks appears, they might ask her about the truth of claims by The Mail on Sunday that she told the Prime Minister, David Cameron, to take on Andy Coulson as his media chief.
They might also question her about how hacking could have been so routine in her newsroom without her knowing – she claims she had no idea. And they might ask how she could have read the story about hacked missing girl Milly Dowler and not wondered how her reporters had got the material in it. Whether the questions will elicit useful information is, in itself, a question.
A leading media lawyer, Mark Stephens, told The Independent: “The flaw in the system is that MPs are not forensically trained like barristers to cross-examine the eye-teeth out of people.” But the Murdochs have not been forensically trained either.
One of Rupert Murdoch’s biographers, Michael Wolff, said the media baron would be worried because public appearances do not play to his strengths, which lie in the backroom deal.

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald.
“He is awful at this sort of stuff. He is pretty inarticulate, mumbles all the time and is incredibly defensive … It won’t be pretty and he will be taking his preparation very seriously.”

Politicians turn on Murdoch after sniffing changing wind


THE phone-hacking scandal has been the best of times and the worst of times for both journalism and democracy. It was five years of stubborn, upright investigation by the The Guardian that exposed the vicious, grubby tactics of the News of the World. Now Britain, shamed by the exposure of many of its leaders as craven and corrupted, has vowed to restore the integrity of its political system.
But for Rupert Murdoch there has been nothing but trouble as he tried to stare down what might turn out, in hindsight, to be his Citizen Kane moment — the point when his dreams turn to ashes.
It has been a long time coming.
The British establishment donned the bovver boots with grace, with MPs this week turning on a brilliant show of rhetoric over highfalutin principles that few publicly gave a toss about a week before. But beneath it all flowed a long-dammed torrent of venom towards the Australian interloper they call “the Dirty Digger”.
Murdoch is being likened in the broadsheet press — the parts of it he doesn’t own — to the Arab dictators being overthrown because of abuse of power. Labour peer David Puttnam said Murdoch papers were like the Stasi. Andreas Whittam Smith, founder of The Independent, suggested Murdoch had begun to pose a threat to British society something like the Mafia in Italy. Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee said the push to take on Murdoch broke Britain’s “omerta” (the Mafia code of silence).
How did the boy from Oz earn such fear and loathing? His critics say it is because he abused his power as a media baron to manipulate the political process and intimidate those within it.
Some analysts pinpoint the start of it all to 1992. Labour had been expected to win an election led by Neil Kinnock. Murdoch papers campaigned against him, with The Sun saying on election day: “If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.” When he lost, the paper declared: “It’s The Sun wot won it.”
An alarmed Labour Party sought to disarm its new enemy and the Conservatives were not far behind. The links between the empire and politicians on both sides have been strong. Former prime minister Gordon Brown, this week so scathing of The Sun’s treatment of the news of his baby son’s cystic fibrosis, was among those currying favour — and his wife Sarah reportedly helped organise the 40th birthday party of Rebekah Brooks, the head of News International who resigned yesterday. Former prime minister Tony Blair is reported to have had regular private meetings and phone calls with Murdoch. It has been claimed Murdoch rang Blair encouraging him to join the invasion of Iraq.
Writes Marina Hyde of The Guardian, who describes herself as “a recovering Murdoch employee”: “Rupert Murdoch was the only figure powerful enough to be able to state explicitly, without consequence, that he was backing war on Iraq to bring down the price of oil. So his ‘free press’ all cheer-led for said war . . .
“The whitewashing report into the death of a scientist who questioned the basis for that war was mysteriously linked to Murdoch’s papers . . . while others in his pay hacked the phones and emails of those casualties of war being repatriated in body bags, to be monetised as stories all over again . . . This is a land where a change in prime ministers constitutes the mere shuffling of Rupert’s junior personnel.”
It is claimed that those who refused to play the game or who fell into disfavour were often punished. An MP who declined to back a NoTW campaign initiated by Brooks to name and shame paedophiles was then targeted by one of the paper’s private detectives who searched for him on a police database, The Guardian reports. He was one of a string of Labour leaders and MPs allegedly campaigned against.
Last month Cameron and Opposition Leader Ed Miliband attended Murdoch’s annual summer party in London. Cameron is also reported to have visited Murdoch in his yacht off the coast of Greece in 2008. Before the scandal broke, he was friends with Brooks and with Andy Coulson, the editor who presided over the News of the World during its phone-hacking phase, but whom Cameron nevertheless hired as his media adviser.
“Politicians were too busy feeding bananas to the tabloid gorilla to notice it was crapping on the carpet,” wrote Michael White in The Guardian.
Now the leaders are channelling Pontius Pilate, washing the suddenly visible Murdoch taint from their hands and trying to work out whose “execution” would best fit their purpose. The political row has been presented as a grand defence of democracy but it is also a Darwinian struggle for survival of the fittest. It’s just that since the news broke about phone-hacking of bereaved families, enraging the public, the political definition of “fittest” has been transformed.
For his wit in perceiving where that might lead, the points are with Miliband, who took a bold risk that forced Cameron into a humiliating series of back-steps. But every move by each of them has been made in self-interest as they sniffed the changing wind. Democracy? Or hypocrisy? Perhaps both.
Even when he was at risk of bankruptcy in the 1990s, Rupert Murdoch was never so besieged. His bid for cable-TV station BSkyB is withdrawn, maybe forever. He and his son and Brooks have been summonsed by the House of Commons to give evidence. His company faces investigations on both sides of the Atlantic. The succession of James is now problematic. Some investors have called for the Murdoch family to relinquish its dominance of News Corp.
And a call from Citizen Murdoch will never again be received in quite the same way.First published in The Age.

No, no, 350 billion times no, say Greeks

Endemic structural flaws underpinning the European Union are partly to blame for Greece’s economic woes, writes Karen Kissane in London.

THE Greeks have a national holiday for saying “No!” On October 28, they celebrate the anniversary of a day in 1940 when their prime minister rejected a demand by Mussolini that Axis troops cross into Greece.
Legend has it that despite knowing it would mean war, he simply said “Ohi!” (pronounced o-hee). Greeks who had heard the story then poured into the streets shouting “Ohi!” in solidarity. The Italians did invade but were eventually driven out.
For weeks now, angry crowds outside Greece’s parliament have called on that history of patriotic resistance, waving banners that again proclaim “Ohi!” This time, the “enemy” is their government’s austerity program and it is not yet clear if the people will win.
The rest of Europe hopes not. Greece owes €350 billion ($A473 billion) — more than 1 times the country’s annual output. It cannot afford to pay even the interest on those debts. Since May last year the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund have been bailing Greece out with a €110 billion loan and are now considering a second one.
In return, this “troika” insists that Greece balance its books.
For years, Greek governments have spent more than they earn. The country’s leaky and unfair tax system — which captures ordinary wage earners but lets many self-employed and big-business people off the hook — did not bring in enough money to pay for its large public sector and its welfare programs.
Greece is now stigmatised as the potential cause of a euro-zone collapse. If it defaults and chooses bankruptcy, this might frighten investors who are already anxious about the financial problems of Portugal, Ireland and Spain, who, together with Greece, are now known by the graceless acronym “PIGS”. This could cause “contagion” — fear spreading through markets — triggering a credit freeze that sucks the rest of the euro zone or even the rest of the world into recession.
But the cause of Greece’s catastrophe does not lie entirely with Greece. Underlying faults in the structure of the European Union allowed the debacle to develop.
Greek analyst Petros Papaconstantinou asked in the newspaper Kathimerini: “If . . . little Greece is capable of causing such contagion throughout Europe, couldn’t the problem lie with Europe’s immune system?”
The European Union is a giant experiment, magnificently idealistic but flawed.
The euro zone has a single currency for countries with widely differing levels of wealth, frugality and financial nous. Interest rates were kept low by the European Central Bank to prevent deflation in wealthier countries but the easy credit seduced “PIGS” nations.
The EU then proved to have poor systems for supervising member countries’ national accounts and for regulating the levels of capitalisation of European banks, which run on lower deposit ratios than American banks. It also failed to recognise the danger of fearsomely large bubbles in places such as Ireland and Greece.
The EU was set up on the understanding that no member would be required to prop up another. But in most nation-states with a single currency — such as Australia or the US — poorer areas are given a boost through higher per-head funding or projects that bring work to a place with less employment. The EU has a couple of ways of doing this, but they are relatively low key.
Nation-states also have a national debt for which the entity as a whole takes responsibility. The EU does not.
The EU has tried to have an economic zone that is united in some regards (over currency and interest rates) but fragmented: countries are free to decide their own tax and spending targets and run up their own debts.
“The perception was that the euro zone was rather like living in a neighbourhood with individual houses and individual gardens,” says Thomas Klau of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “You want all the houses and gardens to look nice, but ultimately everyone has a responsibility for his or her own building.
“It’s more like an apartment building. When there’s a flood or a fire in one of the flats, everyone is affected.”
This is why some analysts now talk of the EU either becoming more integrated or fracturing entirely. It could decide to develop closer ties over money to stabilise the zone, or Germany might finally buck up over endless bailouts. Greece might decide that default could not be any more painful than its current suffering. Everything old will be new again, in a Europe with Deutschmarks and drachmas.
It is now seen as inevitable that Greece will default at some point and further bailouts are viewed as ways of buying time: for Greece to get back in the black before it has to manage on its own; for Ireland, Spain and Portugal to become stronger; and for Europe’s banks to regain their balance.
Spain has its “indignants” protesting against austerity. The Irish complain their debt repayments are strangling any chance of recovery. This week, 500,000 Britons took to the streets to oppose cuts to pension plans.
Greeks are not the only ones shouting “No!”

First published in The Age.