James Murdoch will face the Commons Culture, Media and Sport select committee on Thursday from what seems like a hopelessly weak position. Since the chairman of News International last appeared in front of the committee, two former senior News of the World executives have suggested that, contrary to his testimony then, he knew about the extent of phone hacking at the paper as early as June 2008. Last week, the committee released an opinion from the company's QC dated 3 June 2008, which suggested there had been "a culture" of hacking at the paper. Didn't Mr Murdoch read this at the time?
Many people will think he did not tell the committee the full truth four months ago. He has a lot of explaining to do. Moreover, he will face his interrogators alone – in July, he was accompanied by his father, Rupert, who sat at the centre of the storm.
This week's solitary ordeal will be taxing for James, and he is likely also to feel isolated for other reasons. The majority of shareholders at News International's parent company News Corp recently voted against his re-election to the board, though the Murdoch family's 40 per cent control of the voting shares ensured that this revolt was ineffectual. During Commons questions last week, Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, seemingly refused to declare him a "fit and proper person" to run BSkyB. Meanwhile, an article in the latest issue of Vanity Fair alleges that Rupert came close to sacking James last July.
It is difficult not to feel a little sorry for him, since he doesn't seem like a bad man, and is only where he is because he is Rupert's younger son by his second marriage. Nor are his presumed sins as great as some at the News of the World. The charge against him is not of condoning phone hacking, but of orchestrating a subsequent cover-up to protect the company's reputation.
He is probably finished as a senior executive of News Corp, and it is inconceivable that he will succeed his father. Even by his own version of events he is guilty of incompetence for not knowing about extensive phone hacking when senior colleagues did. As it is, the evidence apparently points to complicity. If this were a lurid drama on Murdoch-controlled Sky TV, James would be led away on Thursday, his dreams in ruins. And yet, I am far from certain this will happen.
The reason has to do with the shortcomings of the Culture, Media and Sport committee. Everybody has an allotted time to ask questions. To judge by what happened in July, some of them might as well not have turned up, they were so feeble. A few – notably Labour MP Tom Watson – were more formidable, but even they lacked proper forensic skills. It would be far better if the committee could appoint its own legal counsel. A seasoned barrister could probably make mincemeat of James Murdoch.
My fear is that its members will either feel obliged to plug away at a different line of questions to highlight their originality, or that they will have their own beside-the-point preoccupations. During the July hearings, for example, Tory MP Louise Mensch lost focus by dragging in Piers Morgan, the former editor of the Daily Mirror, and taking a swipe at the Mail group.
We can only hope that the more competent interrogators (probably three or four of the 11 members) will concentrate on the simple point that James Murdoch seems to have known about the extent of hacking three years before he claims. Ask the same question a dozen different ways. Don't be side-tracked by this weekend's revelation that Rebekah Brooks, former chief executive of News International, received a pay-off of £1.7m and various other goodies – inexcusable, but also largely irrelevant.
This is not a court of law, and in any case we should not assume beforehand that James Murdoch is guilty of a cover-up. I am just hoping against hope that on Tuesday the committee asks the right questions to establish whether or not he is.
Misogynist online hatemail is on the rise
Laurie Penny's column in last Friday's Independent revealed the amount of anonymous abuse, often violent and obscene, she receives when her work is published. Other female bloggers and commentators, ranging from liberal to conservative, have confirmed how widespread this phenomenon is. Caroline Farrow, a blogger for Catholic Voices, says she receives "at least five sexually threatening emails a day".
Can anything be done? Given the nature of the internet, it is difficult to see how bloggers can do much – other than to stop writing blogs, which some have. It is hard to disregard obscene emails. Newspaper columnists should be another matter, in so much as online postings beneath their articles are supposedly "moderated". This is a commitment more honoured in the breach than the observance. One columnist tells me that, in an online row below his piece, one person threatened to kill another.
As I have previously suggested, the solution chosen by an increasing number of journalists is to not read online comments. This undermines the point of the exercise, which is to encourage feedback and debate. But how can you have that if people are vile? Unless newspapers properly moderate postings, online comments will go unread by the journalists whose pieces give rise to them.
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- Department For Culture, Media And Sport
- Jeremy Hunt (politician)
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