An idiot with some shaving foam managed to hijack Rupert Murdoch's first ever appearance before a Parliamentary committee yesterday. That was a shame. But in truth, the House of Commons media committee had already failed to live up to its billing as one of the great Parliamentary occasions of our time.
Some telling nuggets were unearthed from the more than two hours of testimony from Mr Murdoch about the influence he wields in British politics. Mr Murdoch recounted how David Cameron invited him to Downing Street to say thanks for his "support" in helping the Conservatives to win the 2010 general election. When asked about his close relations with successive British prime ministers, Mr Murdoch said, with a smile, "I wish they'd leave me alone"; a remark that drove home how craven our political leaders had grown in their relations with the press baron.
A few important facts came out too. The Labour MP Paul Farrelly managed to extract from James Murdoch an admission that News International continued to pay the legal fees of the private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, long after he was convicted of phone hacking in 2007. Tom Watson exposed just how little Rupert Murdoch knew (or would admit to knowing) about what took place at News International in the years after the phone-hacking scandal first broke in 2005. As Mr Watson noted, this might not be enough given that, as News Corp's chairman, Mr Murdoch is responsible for corporate governance.
Yet the rest of the MPs on the committee were poor. They asked unfocused questions that invited the Murdochs to waffle and evade. Alan Keen and Therese Coffey were particularly unimpressive. And Louise Mensch did the public no favours by inviting the Murdochs to comment on the practices of the rest of the media, rather than focusing on the behaviour of News International. The Murdochs visibly relaxed as the hearing went on. Compared with US Congressional committee hearings, this was an amateurish show.
The committee failed to shed light on the central issue of the apparent cover-up of the scandal. Last week we learned of the existence of an internal News International document, dating from 2007, which showed that phone hacking was a widespread practice at the News of the World. Yet right up to this year, News International was publicly insisting that phone hacking was the work of a single rogue reporter. James Murdoch told the committee that he only found out about this incriminating document in April or May 2011. So who within News International kept their boss in the dark about the existence of the document? James Murdoch stonewalled, although his father seemed to point the finger of blame at Jon Chapman, News International's former chief legal officer, and Colin Myler, the most recent editor of the News of the World. Those are claims that the police need to thoroughly probe.
Rupert Murdoch said that yesterday was the "most humble day of my life". In truth it was not. And the MPs of the select committee, with some honourable exceptions, did nothing to ensure that it would be. But the questions are not over. And Mr Murdoch's day of true humility might still be to come.