Ian Burrell: James Murdoch emerges with reputation scarred

Appearance before MPs raises questions about his future at BSkyB
  • @iburrell

It was hard to look on James Murdoch, as he gave evidence to MPs today, and think that he was a future chairman or chief executive of the News Corporation empire which his father famously built.

So desperate was he to deflect questions about his knowledge of phone hacking – as Tom Watson MP likened him to a Don Corleone figure - that he could not help but appear like an incompetent manager. So incompetent in fact, that it is hard to think that shareholders of BSkyB will be rushing to endorse his continuation as chairman when the satellite broadcaster holds its annual general meeting later this month.

“This really is pretty lax for someone in your position,” exclaimed select committee member Philip Davies as he expressed astonishment at Murdoch’s ignorance of what was going on at News International. “It may not be the mafia but it doesn’t sound like Management Today,” mocked Davies, a Tory MP who once worked for Asda.

Rupert Murdoch had described his own appearance before the committee in July as “humbling”. His son’s reappearance before the same panel was humiliating, in respect of his business reputation.

He had come to the hearing, heavily rehearsed and dressed respectfully in sober suit, black tie and a poppy in his button hole. Shorn of the need to come to the defence of his elderly father, with whom he had previously given evidence, he began with assertive responses, mercifully free of the management speak which had characterised his earlier responses.

But as he sought to dump the blame for the mishandling of the hacking scandal on two of his juniors – the legal manager Tom Crone and the last editor of the News of the World Colin Myler – Murdoch himself looked increasingly negligent. His contempt for Crone shone through in the assertion that the legal boss was only permitted to authorise company payments of £10,000, a statement which undermined Murdoch’s determined claim that he had agreed to Crone’s suggestion that a settlement be made for £725,000 without bothering to study the advice of News International’s counsel.

That advice would have told Mr Murdoch of a wider culture of phone hacking, which he insists he was ignorant of at that time in 2008. But MPs seemed unconvinced. Paul Farrelly MP asked him why the payment was being made to Gordon Taylor, the head of the footballers’ union, when the phone hacking scandal concerned the Royal Editor of the News of the World. “Did you not say: ‘Well, he’s not a royal’,” said Farrelly.

Murdoch continued to plead his ignorance, except when accusing Myler for the failure of his internal investigations and Crone for having authorised the use of private detectives to trail lawyers representing clients who were suing News International. “It’s appalling, it’s something I would never condone,” said Murdoch, who was chairman of News International at the time. He said the operation had also been authorised by another NI executive, who he curiously did not name.

In protesting his own innocence, Murdoch repeatedly cited the size of the job that he had been given by his father when he was placed in charge of News Corp’s business in Europe and Asia. He mentioned meetings in India and Hong Kong and said that News International was the smallest and most economically insignificant part of his portfolio.

As he did so he will have given no confidence to those News International employees who were looking for a signal that would refute rumours that the Murdochs would like to offload the company’s British newspapers. Then when Steve Rotheram MP claimed that the name of The Sun appeared as a client in the files of the disgraced phone hacker Glenn Mulcaire, the man whose crimes brought down the News of the World, Mr Murdoch chose not to come to the paper’s defence or even to rule out that the daily paper would not in turn be closed down.

James Murdoch might remain at his family business for longer than the famous tabloid. Despite accusations of being a Godfather (his desire to plead ignorance even extended to the Harvard-educated boss of Sky Italia saying he didn’t know the meaning of the word omerta), he may avoid the fate of his friend Rebekah Brooks in being questioned by the police. But his standing as a businessman has been irreparably scarred.