What the fuck does Rupert Murdoch do all day? To judge by his baffling performance before a British parliamentary committee investigating him for phone hacking, little more than gossip on the phone with whatever old-timer is willing to indulge him while his son James and wife Wendi battle for control of News Corporation.
And anyone who saw Rupert get a pie in the face knows who has the upper hand in that battle: James stood paralyzed, jaw agape, as the assailant tried to push a plate full of shaving cream into his father's face. But his step-mother Wendi Deng sailed through the air with grace and rage, clawing at the attacker's face before attending to Rupert. James is no match for that woman.
Rupert, of course, sat confused at the table, just as he had all morning. He was ostensibly there, as his former confidant Rebekah Brooks put it in her later testimony, to "try to explain openly and honestly what happened."
But it was immediately clear that Rupert had literally no idea what was happening at that moment, let alone what had happened over the past decade at News International. All you needed to do was look at the faces of his retinue—James next to him, Wendi and super-attorney Joel Klein seated behind him, leaning in to mark every word. They all looked terrified.
In the face of frustratingly genteel and polite inquiries, Murdoch repeatedly lost his train of thought, mumbled, failed to comprehend questions, and wandered on embarrassing tangents.
At one point he began a sentence intended to defend the practice of paying for scoops by referring to the Telegraph's story about members of parliament abusing their taxpayer-financed expense accounts. He ended it, confusingly, by extolling the virtues of Singapore, where members of parliament make $1,000,000 per year. At another, he couldn't name News Corp.'s chief legal counsel. At another, he stated unequivocally that paying police officers for information was wrong and against company policy, seemingly unaware that his former trusted editor Brooks had admitted to doing just that before the very same committee in 2003. Rupert's confusion would be understandable if you'd just shaken him from a nap and begun grilling him. But this was arguably the most important showdown of his career, one for which he'd had a week to prepare with the most expensive counsel money can buy. It will be very hard, going forward, for his critics to paint him as a power-mad Machiavelli working his global empire like a malevolent pump organ. Though maybe that was the idea.
James looked embarrassed and concerned, jumping in repeatedly to try to rescue his father and prevent a disaster—at one point Rupert mentioned a contract between former News of the World editor Andy Coulson and publicist Max Clifford, and James, looking aghast, immediately disavowed any knowledge of it. When he was able to wrest the floor away from his dad, James did his best Eddie Haskell, coming off as ostentatiously polite—virtually every utterance was preceded by a "May I?"—bug-eyed, and sweaty. Whereas Rupert spoke gruffly, like a man accustomed to being heard, his son spoke with the forced earnestness of someone who always feels the need to impress.
Both men repeatedly claimed to have been totally in control of their respective corporate briefs except for the illegal stuff, which they knew nothing about. Rupert darkly referred to criminal hackers still lurking, uncaught, within the bowels of News Corp., as though he will personally root them out.
And then, as if on cue, along came an idiot to throw a pie and make Rupert seem sympathetic and Wendi seem awesome. Rupert gallantly returned to finish up his questions.
Brooks, for her part, was dour and evasive. She repeatedly referred to her attempts to investigate hacking allegations during her tenure as chief executive of News International as "getting to the bottom of the story." She's a shitty reporter. She should have hired some folks from the Guardian.