Political sketch: Filleting Murdoch fils

At Leveson, Robert Jay QC questions James Rupert Jacob.

 

It was always going to be difficult to take seriously someone who sound like Montgomery Burns but an exception has to be made for James Murdoch.

He may have gone from Murdoch minor to Murdoch minus in the last eight months but he turned up at the Leveson inquiry still able to cause trouble just by saying yes or no. With his dad due as the main course tomorrow, James was always going to be a thin sort of hors d’oeuvre and not much for the audience to snack on.

Indeed, after his mafia-mauling at the hands of Labour MP Tom Watson he must have thought he’d faced the worst that Britain had to offer —but that was before he met the man with the yellow-framed specs.

Step forward Robert Jay QC, lead counsel and bearded tormentor-in-chief to the good, bad and sometimes irrelevant who have meandered their way through mostly Murdoch-matters since Leveson began his inquiry into media standards.

It was standing room only at the Royal Courts of Justice as Murdoch fils entered the nearest thing to a dock the inquiry has, and proceeded to kick off by admitting his full-name was James Rupert Jacob Murdoch.

That was probably the only willing admission made over the next five hours as Mr Jay proceeded to slice and dice his way through the email trail which marked Mr Murdoch’s journey from hero to zero during his four years at the helm of the British end of the global empire.

Earlier, the Press Association had confirmed it was a real story by issuing a flash that James had entered the gates of the Royal Courts "in a black Range Rover".

Even his wife had turned up, raising reporters' hopes of a repeat of the "left-hook" incident in the Commons when Rupert’s missus laid out a pie-waving protestor who sought his 15 seconds of fame. But there were no obvious marks to be seen from the forensic filleting of her husband by the quietly-speaking silk, although the thin Mr Murdoch did appear to be thinner still once the examination was over.

What we did discover was the length and breadth of the political contacts of the man who ran four British newspapers and BskyB on behalf of his dad.

And even before Mr Jay let him off the hook the Prime Minister had been forced into pledging “total confidence” in his Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt in the fashion so beloved on football chairmen talking about their errant managers.

Well before we got to that, we discovered that James still knew nothing about phone hacking by journalists on the News of the World. Indeed, he told the inquiry he did not read the paper on a regular basis — nor the Sun — thereby giving him at least something to share with most of the people in the room.

But we did find out that James pledged the Sun’s support to David Cameron and the Tory Party over “drinks at The George” in September 2009, and agreed to let the news out for maximum effect the day after Gordon Brown was due to address the Labour Party conference.

And we learned he discussed the Scottish Sun’s support for Alex Salmond with a very supportive SNP leader at several social events north of the border before the general election.

We also learned that James would be shocked if anyone thought that pledging editorial support required a quid pro quo from News International. Lots of people in the room certainly looked shocked at something.

So James must have been even less shocked as Jay led him though a series of emails — note to company chiefs: never write it down — detailing the contacts between him, his office and that of Jeremy Hunt during the "quasi-judicial" consideration of the now-aborted bid by Murdoch et al. to buy up full control of BSkyB.

James headed for the hills of high principle as he was reminded of Business Secretary Vince Cable’s unfortunate boast that he was out “to get Murdoch” in the Telegraph sting that got him dropped from the decision.

But he was much less comfortable as Jay read from a series of messages implying close contact between him and his office and the Culture Secretary, then in charge of adjudicating on the bid. Jay said James was “somewhat blind” to the apparent horse trading between the Sun’s support for the Tory Party and its subsequent backing for the BSkyB takeover. James had his shocked look on again.

Tomorrow the inquiry finally turns its attention to the organ grinder and has set a day and a half aside to grill the octagenarian who has had his hand up the backs of British politicians for much of the last 40 years.  

Rupert Murdoch’s many and varied enemies will celebrate this rare chance to get him in court. 

But they should remember Rupert does not shock quite so easily.

Murdochs Major and Minor. Photo: Getty Images

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

Photo: Getty
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Are the Conservatives getting ready to learn to love the EEA?

You can see the shape of the deal that the right would accept. 

In an early morning address aimed half reassuring the markets and half at salvaging his own legacy, George Osborne set out the government’s stall.

The difficulty was that the two halves were hard to reconcile. Talk of “fixing the roof” and getting Britain’s finances in control, an established part of Treasury setpieces under Osborne, are usually merely wrong. With the prospect of further downgrades in Britain’s credit rating and thus its ability to borrow cheaply, the £1.6 trillion that Britain still owes and the country’s deficit in day-to-day spending, they acquired a fresh layer of black humour. It made for uneasy listening.

But more importantly, it offered further signs of what post-Brexit deal the Conservatives will attempt to strike. Boris Johnson, the frontrunner for the Conservative leadership, set out the deal he wants in his Telegraph column: British access to the single market, free movement of British workers within the European Union but border control for workers from the EU within Britain.

There is no chance of that deal – in fact, reading Johnson’s Telegraph column called to mind the exasperated response that Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal and a supporter of a Remain vote, gave upon hearing that one of his players wanted to move to Real Madrid: “It's like you wanting to marry Miss World and she doesn't want you, what can I do about it? I can try to help you, but if she does not want to marry you what can I do?”

But Osborne, who has yet to rule out a bid for the top job and confirmed his intention to serve in the post-Cameron government, hinted at the deal that seems most likely – or, at least, the most optimistic: one that keeps Britain in the single market and therefore protects Britain’s financial services and manufacturing sectors.

For the Conservatives, you can see how such a deal might not prove electorally disastrous – it would allow them to maintain the idea with its own voters that they had voted for greater “sovereignty” while maintaining their easy continental holidays, au pairs and access to the Erasmus scheme.  They might be able to secure a few votes from relieved supporters of Remain who backed the Liberal Democrats or Labour at the last election – but, in any case, you can see how a deal of that kind would be sellable to their coalition of the vote. For Johnson, further disillusionment and anger among the voters of Sunderland, Hull and so on are a price that a Tory government can happily pay – and indeed, has, during both of the Conservatives’ recent long stays in government from 1951 to 1964 and from 1979 to 1997.

It feels unlikely that it will be a price that those Labour voters who backed a Leave vote – or the ethnic and social minorities that may take the blame – can happily pay.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.