Political sketch: after the hors d'oeuvres, stuffed Murdoch

As theatre of anticipation it was wonderful.

College Green had more tents that a boy scouts jamboree as the world's press gathered for the ritual disemboweling of the Great Dictator .But when Rupert turned up it looked we might be just in time to celebrate his departure.

Floors had no doubt been strengthened and roofs raised in anticipation of the appearance of the ogre who frightened the world for almost half acentury but all that turned up was an 80-year-old man who looked as if he was missing his nap.

He turned up with his boy James and a cast of consiglieri who combined salaries probably make them worth more than the building the meeting was being held in.

It was a day of such excitement that the press was literally beside itself. The BBC, so often the target of Murdoch bile, even cancelled The Weakest Link to bring it to the nations attention.

As it was the best story of the day came in noises off and a right hander from Wendi Murdoch which is just as well as the rest if the performance will only look good in the edited highlights.

As theatre of anticipation it was wonderful. The Murdochs were due in the dock at 2.30 but kindly parliamentary authorities, mindful of their place in history laid on a wonderful hors d'oeuvres of a brace of seared and slightly sautéed policemen.

Not content with giving them a good kicking last week MPs had outgoing Met Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson and John no-longer-of-the-Yard- Yates back in to quiz them further.

This High Noon confrontation allowed them to not answer why giving the former deputy editor of the News of the World Neil "Wolfman"
Wallis £1,000 a day for advice on PR will go down in history as the worst example of bad PR since Dave decided Andy Coulson should get the gig at Number 10.

There was one new revelation but this time not from the cops. Instead chairman Keith Vaz, as unctuous as ever, revealed he had something in common with the Met chief: namely he too was best pals with the health farm owner who provided £12,000 of free care to Sir Paul.

That out of the way the tricoteuse turned their attention to the promised main course, stuffed Murdoch.

It was obvious almost immediately that there wasn't much to nibble on the old scrawny bird but the young one had plenty of flesh on him.

Rupert tried to get in his apologies from the start: "This is the most humble day of my life," said the mogul who clearly had been practicing the unfamiliar "h" word but was quickly cut off by Culture Committee chairman John Whittingdale.

MP Whittingdale knew he had to get in quick since he has previous on Rupert having declared him his media hero.No sign of that here as stern John said statements would come later.

Instead he threw the ball to Labour's Tom Watson whose dogged determination over hacking has more than rescued what was in the past a moribund political career despite fears of waking up and finding a horse's head next to him in bed.

As Tom bared his teeth James valiantly tried to deflect his attention from his dad who was staring absent mindedly at the table. But Tom had been waiting a long time for his chance.

Did you not know what was going on in your own organisation demanded Tom. "Not really," was the less than energetic reply. In fact it became almost sad as the octagenarian seemed lost in thought as he tried to come up with answers.

Both Murdochs had clearly been told to keep their cool and they sat there like two of the wise monkeys (Rebekah, now cast into the outer darkness, was due on stage later.)

As it was squirming James ended up answering or dodging most of the questions from MPs who after this performance must never give up the day job whatever it is.

James, wearing one of those posh tans you don't get from a fortnight in Benidorm, has the posh American accent to go with it and had certainly learned the corporate "It wasn't me guv" mantra off by heart Rupert woke up now and again when the MPs were getting a bit hard on his boy but generally kept his head down and his poking finger flat under the watchful eye of the missus.

Did he accept responsibility for this fiasco. "No" was one of his more fulsome replies.Had he thought of quitting? "No" again as if anyone in Murdoch towers had even thought that idea a starter.

Time crawled by as committee members tried to ask the questions they must have overheard on the tube home but there was neither heat nor light until James was asked if his company had been picking up the legal bills of chief criminal Glen Mulcaire even after his prison sentence. The simple answer seems to be yes although the words uttered bore only a passing relationship to this fact.

James mumbled, his vowels shortened and dad looked alarmed. It was hard to know if this was a double act or a medical condition.

Then, in the best traditions of Fleet Street, the non-story rode to the rescue.

Despite the earlier presence of the nation's ex top coppers and security you felt was impregnable up popped a lad with a plate full of shaving cream. The cameras went off as tomorrow's headlines were written in white foam.

Cynics will say it was a News of the World stunt but that paper, as we know, is no more.

After a short break we resumed and Rupert was roundly thanked for staying around to dodge a few more questions.Then he went home.

Up next lonely and forlorn was the not quite so flame-haired ex-chief executive who only last week Rupert said he would defend to the hilt.

She seemed to be in denial as she talked about "our company" and "our response" The only friend Rebekah had with her was "my learned " there to make sure the hole she is already in gets no bigger.

Meanwhile Dave was in Nigeria.

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

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder