Foam pies, forgetful press barons and a plan for a Times theme park

Peter Wilby’s engaging and entertaining take on the big stories of the week.

Was the young man who attacked Rupert Murdoch with shaving foam, thus helpfully turning the old monster into a victim and his battling wife into a heroine, planted by News Corporation? If so, the Murdochs, father and son, would naturally disclaim all knowledge. But the attack neatly fitted the Murdoch Sr strategy, which was to present himself as a slightly deaf old man who hadn't a clue what had been going on. Nobody told him anything, he'd never heard of long-serving News of the World reporters, he had been let down by everybody he trusted. Now, that nasty Gordon Brown, whose children had played with his, had turned against him, too. And all he was trying to do was some good in the world according to his father's deathbed wishes.

Murdoch Jr, on the other hand, couldn't be expected to know anything that happened before he took responsibility for the NoW and other operations in 2007. "I don't have any direct knowledge," he kept saying, as though he were a computer programmed to take cognisance only of events in the past four years.

As these two incurious men professed their shock, horror and amazement at discovering the Milly Dowler phone-hacking, one was inevitably reminded of Captain Renault in Casablanca, who cried, as he pocketed his winnings, that he was "shocked, shocked!" to find gambling in Rick's bar. Both Murdochs seemed also to suffer frequent memory lapses. In Rupert's case, this may be attributed to advancing age, but the affliction seems all too common among News International executives and one wonders if there is something in the office water or air-conditioning at Wapping. Health and Safety should investigate.

Humble in the jungle

It is suggested that Rupert's "this is the most humble day of my life" line must have been coached. Perhaps that is so, but Murdoch does humility quite well when necessary. At Wapping in 1986, I met him twice as a member of hacks' delegations. On the first, as sacked printers howled outside, he said: "Journalism is a creative activity. We are not providing a creative environment." On the second, he met us, without aides, and diligently took shorthand notes, as though he were a cub reporter at a press conference. When one scribe complained his editor rewrote his copy, Murdoch assumed his "shocked! shocked!" look and said: "Editors should never do that."

Angling club

At times like this, when a single issue dominates the news and everybody seems to have said everything that can be said, press commentators (including me) face the problem of finding a fresh "angle". One solution is to argue that the issue has been overblown and isn't that important. Guess what the commentators who recently used the following versions of that argument have in common:

1 "Newspapers don't dictate policy . . . They can't. They gain their power from their readers."
2 "The political class has been consumed with a story that it thinks to be of epochal importance, oblivious to the people who are just getting on with their . . . lives."
3 "Parts of the British press have got into the bad habit of spying on people. The habit is at least a century old and . . . well known by journalists and widely suspected by our readers."

All these arguments, though elegantly expressed, are ineffably silly. For example, why do prospective prime ministers fly to Australia (Tony Blair in 1995) or to a yacht off the Greek island of Santorini (David Cameron in 2008) to find out what British newspaper readers think? Why, if everybody knew that journalists were habitually up to no good, did this so long escape NI executives, Downing Street and the Met? But, when all is said and done, lots of silly things are written (including by me). No, the interesting thing is that the commentators who wrote the above are, respectively, Daniel Finkelstein, Philip Collins and Matthew Parris. They are all Times columnists. Funny, that.

End of Times?

If Rupert Murdoch were forced to sell his British newspaper titles, who would buy them? Contrary to general opinion, the Sun would surely be the bigger problem. Even if it avoids direct implication in phone-hacking, it is becoming, in the fashionable phrase, a toxic asset. Moreover, the British tabloid tradition of personal intrusion by fair means or foul will be difficult to maintain as regulation tightens. The Sun still makes money but a diminishing amount. Richard Desmond, owner of the Daily and Sunday Express, may repeat his offer to buy but nobody, least of all him, can now expect invitations to either Chipping Norton or Downing Street.

Yet the Times, though it loses eye-watering sums of money, is still a good business card to carry. It has the same status as an Old Master or a diamond worn by Queen Victoria, albeit more expensive to maintain. Russian billionaires, Arab oil sheikhs and Asian steel kings would surely be interested. At worst, the Times could be transported and reassembled in Arizona, joining the pre-1967 London Bridge in an English theme park, with leading columnists - see above, but not forgetting the venerable Lord Rees-Mogg - producing their columns for the amusement of tourists.

Pencil it in

Why are so many of the actors in the phone-hacking drama, including Rebekah Brooks, arrested "by appointment"? I had the impression that people suspected of serious crimes were normally arrested in dawn raids called Operation Swooping Eagle or something of the sort. Is the system available to anybody and, if so, is one allowed to say that one can't fit them in until the middle of the month after next?

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005
“Memoirs", Books, page 55