Murdochs at Leveson: fast coverage and fast counterclaim

by Toby Manhire / 26 April, 2012
The pace and breadth of coverage of the UK press inquiry is something to behold – as are the rebuttals.

Around the world media junkies have been glued this week to hearings at the Leveson inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the British press, commissioned by the UK government in the wake of the jawdropping revelations around phone-hacking.

The main attraction: Rupert Murdoch – whose appearance continues on Friday – with the warm-up act his son, James, taking the stand (and the oath) on Wednesday.

Among the many remarkable things to emerge from this week is the pace of response to events in the room. Proceedings are, of course, being live-streamed, and broadcast on television (including as far away as New Zealand, where some of us are wearing bags under eyes as a result).

There are numerous live blogs of events, including the Guardian, the Telegraph, Sky News UK, the Huffington Post, and Channel 4 News.

Then there’s the tweeting. At least a dozen reporters – probably more – are busy live-tweeting the action. Someone thoughtfully compiled a list of them here.

As fast and wide as the coverage are the rebuttals.

This week’s big surprise came in emails provided by James Murdoch, which led to the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, breathlessly volunteering to expedite his appearance at the inquiry to counter suggestions that he had been in close and inappropriate contact with Sky boss James Murdoch’s office in the leadup to the decision on the BSkyB takeover.

Hunt’s special adviser, Adam Smith, was sacrificed on Wednesday; for the time being, Hunt clings on.

Almost as soon as James Murdoch had finished giving evidence on Wednesday, Simon Kelner, a former editor of the Independent newspaper, had a comment piece published by the Guardian, angrily countering Murdoch’s description of an encounter between the two men and Rebekah Brooks. And, even more angrily, denouncing the suggestion that Kelner had “availed himself of [the Murdoch] family’s hospitality”.

He writes:

Set in the context of his many dissemblings and obfuscations over recent months, the fact that this is a bald-faced lie is neither here nor there, just a casual slur despatched with little regard for the facts.

Kelner goes on to allege that in their original encounter, Murdoch and Brooks’ “use of language and the threatening nature of their approach came straight from the ‘Mafioso for Beginners’ handbook” – and one heck of a final sentence:

It's the same lack of judgment, together with a monumental arrogance in the wielding of corporate power, that has led us to where we are today. Which, of course, is the eve of the appearance before Lord Justice Leveson of Rupert Murdoch, the capo di tutti capi.

And that appearance has so far generated just as much instant rebuttal.

Rupert Murdoch’s account of the response by Gordon Brown, then prime minister, to the Sun newspaper’s decision to back David Cameron’s Conservative party provoked a swift statement from Brown calling for him to retract such a “serious allegation”.

That allegation, delivered by Murdoch under oath, was that an “unbalanced” Brown had said to him: “Well, your company has declared war on my government and we have no alternative but to make war on your company."

“Wholly wrong”, said Brown, adding: “I hope Mr Murdoch will have the good grace to correct his account”.

In his first day of evidence, Murdoch Senior also rejected a number of claimes contatined in former Sunday Times editor and Fleet Street legend Harold Evans' famous book Good Times, Bad Times (a book Murdoch claimed not to have read).

At the Daily Beast, a website founded by his wife and former New Yorker editor Tina Brown, Evans writes:

It was comic and sad to see Rupert Murdoch testify at the Leveson Inquiry this morning dealing with all the charges against him. It was comic for me because he had to find a way of denying that he ever broke his promise to maintain the independence of The Times under my editorship. Political independence was only one of the promises he made and broke. It was sad that, having lost his memory, he compensated by spectacular displays of imagination. On the stand he invented a scene in which I came on my knees, begging him to tell me what to think, and not to tell anybody that I’d asked him ...

There is a pattern to the Murdoch sagas. He responds to serious criticism by a biting wisecrack or diversionary personal attack. What is denied most sharply invariably turns out to be irrefutably true. As with the hacking saga, so with my charges.

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