Leveson is not A Few Good Men: Thoughts on Rupert Murdoch’s Testimony

I have watched the unfolding inquiry and several things struck me about James Murdoch’s testimony. What immediately jumps out is the reaction to one side of the story.  To be sure, the testimony and the associated emails present a fascinating story and one that appears to raise questions for Jeremy Hunt.  Yet, we only see one side of the emails. On the surface, they show a lobbyist who is adept at his work and an organisation deeply interested in influencing a government decision.  The behaviour is interesting because of the participants and the background. The process is one that happens across governments in the United States and the United Kingdom.  However interesting the emails and the testimony are, they mask a deeper story that is still unfolding.

What many commentators seem to believe is that the questioning today by Robert Jay QC and Rupert Murdoch’s responses will be like the confrontation in A Few Good Men.  In that movie, Tom Cruise’s character Lt. Kaffee slowly worked his way through minor underlings before confronting the main adversary in Colonel Nathan R. Jessup.  In that scene, Kaffee’s powerful questioning techniques and court strategy show the lie at the heart of Jessup’s testimony bringing his downfall. At the heart of that line of questioning, was the powerful question, “At what price do we defend our liberty?”

The film also raises other points to take away from this exchange and suggest what may or may not happen yet in the Leveson Inquiry with Rupert Murdoch’s testimony.

The film provides an interesting backdrop to the Inquiry because it reveals a similarity between the Murdoch news empire in the United Kingdom and the flawed thinking of Colonel Jessup.  What most press and politicians are not saying is that deep down they need Murdoch and his press.  Politicians need the press to get their message out and to defend it.  In the same way, the press need access to politicians to protect and promote their interests.  There is only a difference of degree and not kind between Murdoch and the other papers.  The drive to get a story and to have the scoop drives all news businesses. They will seek new markets and new means to broadcast their news.  As Murdoch weakens, will that really change the relationship between politicians and the press? Will each stop using the other for their own purposes? Will this suddenly cleanse the relationship that is flawed at its heart?

What is different for News Corporation is how good they were at lobbying and creating an advantage over decades of effort.  Their work was coming near to full success with BskyB project just as it was unravelling at the News of the World. In one-step, they were in a position to cut their reliance on the newspapers because the television and media power of Sky and BskyB would provide the flexibility.  This is not to say that they were going to reduce or remove their newspaper ownership but only electronic media is more profitable and continue to grow in contrast to newspapers.

The second aspect of the film is that this is not going to happen with Rupert Murdoch. Robert Jay is not Kaffee and his style is not combative. Jay is there to get answers to specific questions for Leveson to weave into a set of recommendation.  The goal is different from a criminal trial where the goal is to find a “truth” needed to convict someone.  At the same time, Murdoch is not Jessup.  He does not need to tell us why he has done what he has done. The reason for this is not that he cannot, but rather that there is no need for him to justify himself in the way that Jessup did.  In part, because Jessup believed he was defending a code and in part because the film required it.  By contrast, Murdoch is not defending a code; he is defending a way of doing business.  A way of doing business that has proven successful.

The continuing success of that way of doing business is another reason the testimony will not show anything too scandalous.  Murdoch’s way of working is not as a blunt political force. He has to work through the subtle art of influence, fear, and perception.  The more open he has to be in the exercise of his power, the less powerful he becomes. If he does “dish the dirt”, it is in danger of becoming a spent force.  In many ways, political influence works to the extent that the subject fears exposure, not the real exposure. The more the person fears disclosure or has something to lose, that is the more powerful they are or the more vulnerable they are, the more leverage the influencer has over them.

The other reason why Rupert Murdoch will not be like Jessup is that his strategist should not allow it. Instead, competent strategist could be suggesting he play “rope a dope” with his interrogators.  If they suggest that strategy, they would advise him to appear with a bad memory and a worse grasp of details. As such, he could deflect questions and garner some sympathy.  As such, the interrogators face a challenge because they need to find a way to get him to engage.  What could entice him out is this strategy would be the chance to tell his side of the story.  However, the underlying issue is why would he? Moreover, how is his interrogator going to entice him to do so?  This is not to say the task is impossible rather to point out the normal pattern is not present. He is not trying to justify or defend a position.  As mentioned above, the Leveson is limited to specific questions and Jay is there to get those answers not to put Murdoch on trial for his behaviour, his way of working, or the appearance of impropriety.

Here is the difficulty we all face in this inquiry.  We do not know what a system cleansed of the apparent excesses looks like.  Many in the public have created the impression in the public’s mind that banishing the Murdoch Empire will somehow re-establish the “purity” of the United Kingdom’s political landscape. Yet, what is clear is that someone else will take the position of influence.  They will seek to build up a political network and exploit their political, personal, and professional relationships to promote their interests.  At the same time, the politicians who have supped at Murdoch’s table will feast at the table of another.  The politicians will court the relationships and seek the political advantage that such a relationship bestows.

The underlying issue within the Leveson inquiry, perhaps to be explored in the next module, is how politicians use the press to savage their opponents. We saw glimpses of this technique in the Quick testimony as we did with Lord Blair’s testimony.  They were on the receiving end of the treatment.  What remains to be discovered is who was directing them.  Who was it that wanted to look at Lord Blair and Quick and thought that digging through their personal lives was in the “public interest”?  Who was it that thought that whatever was discovered could prove politically valuable and was eager to trade in it?

In those questions, we will start to see the full scale of the issue.  Murdoch is only successful to the extent has enablers. He has to have people consume his news to succeed and create his influence.  His influence only works if there are politicians ready to consume and use that influence.  In the end, what we realize is that Murdoch and the politicians are still in business even with Murdoch on the stand.

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About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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