What a difference a pie in the face makes. You’d have to go back to Bill Clinton’s live, televised deposition during the Lewinsky scandal to find television quite as gripping as the testimony of James and Rupert Murdoch’s before Parliament in the News of the World phone-hacking scandal – and that was before it turned crazy-slapstick with an attempt to toss a pie at Rupert, an act overshadowed by his wife Wendi’s flying leap at the attacker. (Actually the attacker threw a plate of foam, but it was a pie-in-the-face moment; watch the video below.)
Because there was no physical harm done, the pie-toss turned out to be comic relief for almost everyone except the security people, and inadvertetly did Rupert Murdoch more good than all his media handlers had. He even got an apology from the committee. And it overshadowed what was meant to be Murdoch’s conspicuously crafted takeaway line: “This is the most humble day of my life.”
He was so intent on getting that line out early that, denied a chance to make a statement at the start of the session, he interjected it out of nowhere. It turned out to be part of his statement, which he read later, but it appeared th ere in a different form, as “the most humble day of my career.” The first seemed more Freudian-slip true, but neither one was the least bit convincing.
That line was the first sign that Murdoch had seriously misread the room and the public – his humility is totally meaningless to us. And does anyone think he’s humbled, anyway? He may be sorry he’s in such a jam, regretful that he wasn’t more careful – he may be a lot of things, but humble isn’t anywhere near the list even now. But it was fascinating to watch him try to pull the act off.
Because, as unconvincing as his acting was, even he knew that the day was all about theater and public relations. Neither Murdoch pulled that off very well.
James Murdoch was as lawyered and-media trained as it’s possible for a witness to be. His attempts to sound socially responsible were laughably transparent, but he kept on message. We're sorry, his line went, even though it wasn’t our fault ... well it wasn’t a very enlightening message but he wasnt there to give away anything.
From the start, though, Rupert seemed to be far different from the mogul we expected, a fascinating, impenetrable character. At times he seemed like a befuddled old man, at times just defensive and obfuscating. He gave monosyllabic answers. He took long pauses after questions; the pauses felt suspicious even if they were just a matter of thinking and formulating answers. It was impossible to say how much of this was strategy, how much might have been a hearing problem (he seemed to have trouble with that at times), and how much natural surliness and resentment coming out.
He leapt in forcefully when he felt like it. When one questioner asked James Murdoch about “willful blindness,” comparing the hacking situation to the Enron scandal, James squirmed under the unexpected question (guess you can’t prepare for everything) but Rupert eventually jumped in to snap, “We were never guilty of that.”
Why was the session so gripping? Partly it was the promise of seeing the greatly powerful – Murdoch’s realm is not called a media empire for nothing – taking a great fall. Who knows how far they’ll fall or how much money they’ll lose, but the take-down in the public eye is huge.
Partly, it was the promise of a tantalizing glimpse behind the scenes at the inner workings of that power – and there the Murdochs quite successfully stonewalled. To listen to them, the News of the World was the tabloid that ran itself. They knew nothing, nothing about its workings, it was such a tiny part of their empire.
But none of that compares to the theatrics of the pie-tosser, who turned out to be a comedian called Jonnie Marbles. You cannot make this up. By turning the day into a comic spectacle, he did the nearly impossible: making Murdoch sympathetic, if only for the millisecond he was being attacked. And by tossing a plateful of foam that stole the headlines, Jonnie Marbles might also have revealed how shallow the media coverage of the scandal really is.