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Television

Critic’s Notebook: The clueless Rupert Murdoch

Interrupted only by a pie-throwing incident and a press conference by President Obama, the appearance of Rupert and James Murdoch and former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks before members of the British Parliament dominated all the American news channels for more than four hours on Tuesday morning.

Even Fox News, which has in recent weeks been criticized for willfully ignoring the ever-growing scandal that threatens to engulf its parent company, News Corp., made the trio’s appearance before the committee on culture, media and sport its morning centerpiece. But commentators during and immediately after the testimony were much more concerned with comedian Jonnie Marble’s attempt to shove a plateful of shaving cream in Rupert Murdoch’s face than they were with what anyone said. In summing up the hours of questions and answers, correspondent Amy Kellogg hit mostly on the Murdochs’ expressions of regret.

The bottom line, she said, “is they both said they were terribly sorry but that they didn’t have knowledge of things that happened after 2009, that they felt very let down by people they trusted, and many people are disappointed.”

Video: Murdoch hit with foam pie

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After which Fox News moved on to a report on obesity in America.

On the other side of the spectrum, Current TV pulled in new hire Keith Olbermann out of prime time to host a special report that wound up preempting both “Gateway to Heroin” and “The OxyContin Express.” (Only Current TV did not cut away from Brooks’ testimony to cover the president’s remarks on the debt legislation.)

Olbermann, who opened his coverage by comparing Rupert Murdoch to “Stars Wars” uber-villain Emperor Palpatine, had former Nixon advisor John Dean on hand to make the inevitable comparisons to Watergate. During the 15-minute break caused by the shaving cream assault, they wasted no time expressing concern for the mogul’s welfare but got right down to deconstructing the Murdochs’ insistence that they had no knowledge of any wrongdoing at any point.

CNN, perhaps reacting to Internet mockery of former Murdoch employee Piers Morgan’s strident defense of his old boss — “Strong finish by Rupert,” Morgan tweeted after the Murdochs left Parliament. “Love him or hate him, does anyone genuinely think he’s a crook or condoned crime? Because I don’t” — took a similar stance, assembling Howard Kurtz, Jeffrey Toobin and Richard Levick to criticize Murdoch’s use of ignorance as the best defense.

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Even so, everyone seemed a bit thrown by the length of the proceedings and the relatively boring nature of Brooks’ testimony. By the time the commentators finally were able to surface, the hour was late and the remarkable scene of Rupert Murdoch admitting that he did not really have any clue about what went on at his media outlets — because, you know, there are so darn many of them — had faded.

Still, it is hard to imagine the media mogul, who seemed by turns confused, dismissive, genuinely regretful and irritated, will not be the subject of conversation for the next few days. Especially since his message ran counter to basic leadership protocol. Despite calling it “the most humble day of my life,” Rupert Murdoch flatly denied bearing any responsibility for the illegal conduct that led to him closing the News of the World.

Instead, he pointed to “the people I employed or perhaps the people they employed” as being to blame for what appears to be the systemic practice of phone hacking and payments to police. “I’m not really in touch,” he said without apology or even a hint of sheepishness.

While son James tap-danced, throwing out counsel-approved terms like “not to my knowledge” and “I have no direct knowledge of that,” Rupert sat owlishly beside him, appearing almost strategically unprepared for anything beyond the opportunity to listen to his son read a statement, something he was not initially allowed to do.

Looking every one of his 80 years and then some, Murdoch the elder answered questions with an odd combination of long and mystifying pauses and stray bits of misinformation that James then corrected. There was, too, a general air of bafflement that anyone would think he could or should be aware of the activities of those who worked for his newspapers, up to and including very public payouts to those who had their phones hacked and even the arrests of reporters.

Occasionally he struck the desk with a chopping Khruschevian motion, but after a bit he wisely stopped doing this, apparently at his son’s request. “My son is telling me to stop gesticulating,” he said.

When, early in the testimony before the committee, MP Tom Watson asked if Murdoch was aware that Brooks had previously admitted bribing police, Murdoch acted as if he did not have access to the Internet — never mind a like-a-daughter-to-me relationship with Brooks herself. And when Watson asked if, after that revelation, Murdoch conducted any sort of internal investigation, the media mogul looked at him as if the MP had asked if he cleaned his own toilets. “No,” he answered.

By contrast, James bubbled and twitched with the desire to answer any and all questions, especially those directed at his father, like Hermione Granger in potions class. “I can answer that,” “perhaps it would be helpful if I answered that,” “I’m happy to answer that.”

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Many of his answers followed the same note — he and his father simply believed the outcome of a 2007 police investigation, which found that hacking of phones was done by a few rogue reporters, and were now cooperating fully with the police now as they ever have been; all of which is to say, of course, that they cannot be expected to answer many of the committee’s questions.

Pointedly using terms like “collective amnesia” and “willful ignorance,” the committee made it clear that no one was biting. Repeatedly, the implication from MPs of all political stripe and regional accent was that the Murdochs are responsible for the actions of their employees and if they weren’t aware of what those actions are, they should be, no matter how big the empire or how divided their attention.

After the proceedings were interrupted by Marble’s assault, committee members paused in their general scalding interrogation and commended Murdoch for agreeing to continue. MP Louise Mensch then went on to ask Rupert Murdoch if he had considering resigning, and when he said no, asked, “Why not?”

Because, he said, while the people he hired made this mess, he is the only one capable of cleaning it up.

Video: Murdoch hit with foam pie

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com


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