Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Don't Mention The Pie.

Yesterday anyone who was available in the afternoon was watching the slightly odd entertainment of the Commons Media Select Committee. It was without any doubt the highest viewing figures for any select committee proceedings because of the Murdochs. James and Rupert Murdoch were answering questions about the involvement of News International in the use of phone hacking by News Of The World Journalists. I’m not going to comment on whether I think their testimony was of any interest. I’ll leave that up to the blogs that deal with that subject. I don’t. I want to look at their performance as interviewees. What can they teach us for next time we face a hostile interviewer?

It was a game of two techniques and that is possibly the most impressive thing about their performance. It started a little shakily with a refusal to let them read a prepared statement, and then Murdoch Senior managed to interrupt proceedings to tell us all how humble he was. Humble people don’t interrupt to tell us how humble they are. From that clanging beginning however it turned into a tour de force of contrition manipulation and obfuscation.

James Murdoch has been very well taught in the methods used to diffuse a difficult interview. He was a picture of regret and sorrow when it came to the shortcomings of News International. His tone of voice didn’t really change from a low monotone of submission and his face rarely dropped the expression of a Public School Head Boy caught smoking in the quad. One of his key techniques, however, was the long and detailed answer. When faced with an interview that you know has a time limit make your answers detailed, relevant and long; throw in lots of context, sub-clauses and the occasional bit of technical data (think of the ramblings of Grandpa Simpson). There were a number of replies that seemed to take us back to his childhood and were so involved that even as a keen observer I’d lost track of what the question was.

Rupert Murdoch had a different technique. Most of the informed viewers were waiting for the questioning of Tom Watson MP, the back bencher who had been at the heart of the story of Murdoch’s power over Parliament; he was dogged, he was clear and he was forthright. Tom Watson hadn’t allowed for Rupert Murdoch’s reaction to the questioning. A bald slumped eighty year old man, looking confused beleaguered and harangued, he cut a pitiable figure as he paused before each vague answer and seemed to know little of what his company had been up to. As the questioning went on Murdoch looked more like a care home resident who was regretting giving his son power of attorney. However, later in proceedings he appeared to have facts at his finger tips; the steel trap of a mind was still well oiled and catching people out. Had he just used the great defence of being too old and feeble to stand trial? As for that nasty Tom Watson, he’d just beaten up an octogenarian on live television.

Emotional connection is the Murdoch’s biggest triumph. After appearing in front of the Select Committee they have become human, they are no longer faceless monsters who have the morals of a tabloid journalist, they are human and they are very sorry*. Genius.

*no, I haven’t addressed any of the content of what they said. They wriggled and shimmied and seemed to say very little of use. The defence of hampering criminal proceedings was trotted out regularly.  The Tom Watson questioning about corporate governance was very interesting but will be remembered for Rupert Murdoch’s reaction, not the substance.

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