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

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage