‘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.”