Smart political leaders have a special way of saying sorry. Essentially it involves apologising while at the same time emphasising that whatever they’re apologising for wasn’t their fault. James Murdoch, to go by his performance in front of the Commons select committee yesterday, shares this vital skill.
He apologised “unreservedly” for News International’s spying on the lawyers of hacking victims – but immediately added that he hadn’t known anything about it, just as he hadn’t known, in June 2008, that there was more than “one rogue reporter” at the News of the World who was doing the hacking. Towards the end he even apologised for The Sun’s coverage of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, but still felt the need to point out that he “had no involvement in it”. This seems credible, given he was 16 at the time.
To summarise: he was terribly, terribly sorry – but really his underlings Colin Myler and Tom Crone were the ones to blame, because by claiming he’d known all along that hacking was widespread at the News of the World, they’d misled Parliament.
That accusation was one of the few clear statements he made. Mr Murdoch kept saying he was “happy” to answer questions. But did he answer them intelligibly? Well, as the man himself might put it: with respect I can’t speak to whether I have direct knowledge at this period in terms of his clarity situation or otherwise, but there is no evidence that I have any knowledge as to the precise status of that. Or, as a human being might put it: no. Time and again he insisted that News International has learnt to be more “transparent”. If only this transparency extended to his style of speaking. As in his previous appearance in front of the committee in July, he seemed to be playing a topsy-turvy version of the Radio 4 panel show Just a Minute. In the James Murdoch version, the object is not to avoid repetition, deviation and hesitation, but to give answers that entirely consist of them.
In yesterday’s round he scored highly on repetition (he was given legal advice and he followed that legal advice) and deviation (“I think it’s important to note that…”). Regrettably, he scored less well on hesitation: his voice kept up a relentless monotone throughout, like a Morse Code machine attempting to transmit the unabridged War & Peace.
When Labour’s Tom Watson told him he was about to be asked a series of questions that would require only yes or no for an answer, Mr Murdoch naturally answered almost all of them with a paragraph of dense legalese (“As I’ve already testified to this committee…”). Getting Mr Murdoch to answer yes or no is like trying to arm-wrestle with fog. ...read more