Rupert Murdoch’s critics, watching him testify, were no doubt thinking: “The devious old bastard. He forgets so selectively and he dissembles so artfully.” And what were Murdoch’s many admirers thinking? Almost certainly the same thing.
You have to assume that his admirers don’t put their faith or money on the Rupert in plain view. Not only is he old (and age was an issue here, not least because it entitled him to gentler treatment), but at times he appeared genuinely muddled. (Did James Callaghan ever fight an election? Who won the 1992 election?).
No, if you are an investor in News Corp, as many are (and are usually the richer for it), then you need to believe that inside that slow, Leonid Brezhnev character there lurks a nimble Mikhail Gorbachev who brims with cunning plans and money-making wheezes.
So Murdoch doesn’t need to equivocate (although he does) because he is a kind of living equivocation in his own right, capable of sending several messages at once without saying very much at all.
And it’s likely that most of us, of whatever persuasion, play our parts in this, simply imagining that every curt declaration he makes is accompanied by an invisible wink. So it’s really: “I don’t know many politicians [wink]“; “I never asked Blair for anything [wink]“; “I never let my commercial interests … enter into any consideration at elections [wink].”
Of course this makes difficulties for lawyers, historians and reporters, because an invisible, equivocal wink will never, as it were, stand up in court. For the rest of us, however, it has the reassuring if paradoxical effect that we all hear pretty well what we expect. Murdoch is a monster and Murdoch is a genius, all at once.
This ingenious double-act is clever, but it is now utterly hollow, for two reasons that hardly anybody can fail to know. The first is that it’s a kind of farewell performance. Whatever he has got up to in the past in this country, after the hacking scandal he is not going to get away with it again, at least not on the same scale. And of course he is old, and (meaning no disrespect) there is one circulation war that, in the end, we all lose.
The other reason is those emails that are now causing Jeremy Hunt so much trouble.
There is no earthly way that we or Robert Jay can ever find out what Murdoch said when he saw Thatcher at Chequers in 1981, or what he said when he met Blair or Cameron privately and secretly in Downing Street or Santorini or wherever. No minutes were taken and there is total deniability, so he can practise his invisible wink with impunity.
But in the emails we can see, in cold detail, the nuts and bolts of a mighty machine of corrupting political influence. This was much more than lobbying; it was manipulation, even puppetry, and it was done in Rupert Murdoch’s name. Even if (wink, wink) when the mogul met the prime minister nothing substantive was ever talked about, we now have chapter and verse about the abuse of power going on beneath the surface.
Hunt may not have woken up to it yet, but no amount of equivocation can soften the impact of those emails.
Brian Cathcart teaches journalism at Kingston University London and is a founder of Hacked Off. He tweets at @BrianCathcart
This post originally appeared in The Guardian, “Comment is Free” and is reproduced with permission and thanks