What's At Stake For The Murdochs?

Rupert Murdoch and his son James testified before a parliamentary committee investigating the phone hacking and police corruption activities of their company. Rupert Murdoch called it "the most humble day of my life." Robert Siegel talks to NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik for more.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

And joining us now from New York is NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik.

And, David, as we've just heard from Phil Reeves, James and Rupert Murdoch were there to offer apologies, but members of parliament had their own questions. How would you describe what was at stake here for the Murdochs?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Well, obviously, they've got to navigate a legal thicket. They're trying to influence public opinion, which their holding has been badly damaged, and their standing with politicians has been affected, too. The MPs there wanted answers about what they knew about hacking and also the whole web of political influence and police corruption.

The Murdochs were there, and for that matter, Rebekah Brooks, who followed them - she's their former chief of British newspapers - were contrite in tone, but they kept shifting blame, father and son in particular to the others below them.

And at the same time, the Murdochs were speaking, I think, to a different audience. The testimony was an attempt to speak to shareholders in their company. Their own future, I think, is at stake.

SIEGEL: All right. Let's say you're a shareholder of News Corp. How do you think Murdoch did with them? How do you think he did with that audience?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, if you listen to him, and we can hear it a bit in Phil's report, you know, all three have been depicted by people who know them and people who've competed with them as ruthless, but you listen to James, he could be empathetic. Rupert Murdoch himself sounded deflated. Brooks contrite but responsive in tone, although not necessarily substantively responsive.

Factually, I think there are some real problems there. For example, James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks both said they first learned of widespread hacking allegations, The News of the World, from Sienna Miller. She's the actress. She sued News of the World and News Corp for hacking into her voicemails. That was in 2010.

Why that's important is it's after the trial and prosecution of a former royals editor and a former P.I. for The News of the World who went to jail, who had hacked into the phones of the royal princes and some of their intimates. But by that point, James Murdoch had already approved a seven-figure payout to prominent figures in the professional football world...

SIEGEL: Yeah.

FOLKENFLIK: ...which meant that you have a totally different incident that James Murdoch is aware of. To say that he's not aware of that until a year later, to say that he's not aware until Sienna Miller brings it up suggests that he's intentionally not listening to the evidence before him.

SIEGEL: Yes. He sounded to be on the spot there. Why did he approve a 700,000 pound payout to the head of the soccer players union if he didn't - if he wasn't aware of some...

FOLKENFLIK: Exactly.

SIEGEL: ...(unintelligible). How tight does the Murdochs' control look to be on the News Corp empire? Is it loosened at all by these events?

FOLKENFLIK: Oh, I think it's been loosened very greatly. You know, they're promising a lot of credibility-restoring efforts, but it's hard to take them completely at face value, even if they are completely serious, given previous assurances, given previous promises of prior reviews, saying that, you know, evidence hadn't turned anything up.

You know, the Murdoch vision has defined the company for decades, particularly Rupert Murdoch, the patriarch, and that's been greatly profitable for shareholders.

But, right now, people are reasonably saying if Rupert Murdoch did know he's culpable. If he didn't, as he said, why not? James Murdoch, I think, appears damaged, too. Rupert Murdoch continually deflected questions to him. And while James Murdoch was empathetic in front of that panel, it seemed as though it would be very difficult for him to extricate himself from this morass if he's really the one who's responsible for all of those operations.

SIEGEL: OK. David, thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

SIEGEL: That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik.

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