The Murdochs Lose the Plot

by Alex Massie

Not the least astonishing aspect of the News of the World affair is the useless manner in which the Murdoch family has responded to the crisis. There has been no plan, no attempt to get a grip on the situation; they have instead lurched from one miscalculation to another.

Not that Rupert sees it that way. Apparently the company has made only "minor mistakes" and the crisis has been handled "extremely well in every way possible". Which is one way of looking at it. 

The initial decision to simply shutter the News of the World took everyone by surprise. But it was quickly apparent the Murdochs assumed this would put an end to the matter (and, cynically, that they could, after a decent interval, launch the Sun on Sunday). But, in retrospect, closing the paper simply invited additional questions. Murdoch's apparent infatuation with Rebekah Brooks – saving her job at the expense of hundreds of others – suggested the emperor was more interested in protecting a court favourite than demonstrating any real remorse, far less reform.

Next the Murdochs announced that, contrary to previous promises, they would no longer seek to spin-off Sky News should their bid to purchase the whole of BSkyB be accepted by the Competition Commission. This as-near-as-damnit dared parliament to discuss the matter. Perhaps the Murdochs did not think the House of Commons would challenge them. Well, as the old Scots phrase has it, they ken noo. Nor, frankly, can dropping – or postponing – their bid for BSkyB get them off the hook.

Then there was their response to a request to appear before the Culture, Media and Sport select committee on Tuesday. Rupert dismissed the very idea, presuming that his American citizenship* granted him an exemption from trifling requests from mere parliamentarians. James Murdoch, supposedly preoccupied with this crisis, said he might, with a bit of diary-juggling, be able to attend some time in August. As James Forsyth says, this is another self-inflicted wound struck by an empire in denial and that clearly considers itself above these things.

It was clear, given how previous select committee inquiries on these matters had not received proper answers from various representatives of News International, that parliament would do everything it could to compel their attendance. Indeed, both the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister had gone on the record to say they should attend before the Murdoch’s curt letters saying they wouldn’t were dispatched.

For real. Six hours later and the Murdochs have reversed their own ferret. As with so many of the News of the World's "dark arts" the question is not whether they, or the Murdochs' evident disdain for parliament, were protected by the law but whether they were seemly. They were not and nor is the Murdochs' arrogance and evident surprise that they – they! – should be questioned in such a fashion. I mean, the impudence of it!

Denial, panic, stalling and extraordinary arrogance: the hallmarks of any institution that's too complacent for its own good and utterly incapable of grasping that things can change very quickly. What might have worked a fortnight ago won't work now. These over-mighty barons are now asking for their comeuppance and everyone but them can see this is so.

Even a Dirty Digger should recognise that some holes require no more digging and, indeed, are made worse by additional spadework.

*It does, in as much as he cannot be compelled to come to Britain to testify. But for so long as he is in the United Kingdom he is within parliament's jurisdiction and the Sejeant-at-Arms at Westminster has the right to issue a summons demanding he appear. This has not been necessary since 1992 when, as it happens, such a warrant was issued to compel the sons of Robert Maxwell, another disgraced media tycoon, to appear before parliament.