x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

As Rupert Murdoch reaches his sunset years, son James doesn't also rise

A combination of age and the hacking scandal has taken its toll to a quite unnerving degree on the once awesome, almost physically intimidating presence that was Rupert Murdoch, writes David Sapsted.

Viewers around the world were surprised to see Rupert Murdoch's vulnerability in front of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Tuesday. Andrew Yates / AFP
Viewers around the world were surprised to see Rupert Murdoch's vulnerability in front of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Tuesday. Andrew Yates / AFP

One day about 20 years ago, an abrupt, almost preternatural silence descended on The Times newsroom in London.

The normal bustle instantaneously gave way to a mute hesitancy. Rambunctious reporters, myself included, were reduced to nervous smiles at the arrival of an awesome, almost physically intimidating presence.

Rupert Murdoch had walked into the room.

Now fast-forward a couple of decades to Tuesday. That same man walked into the Wilson Room at Portcullis House in Parliament to give evidence to the culture and media select committee over the phone-hacking scandal.

His global empire is now much greater than it was when he dropped in to The Times. He remains an extraordinary power, not just in the UK, US and Australia but, increasingly, in many other parts of the world.

Yet the awe and that air of intimidation have gone. A combination of age - he is 80 now - and the hacking scandal has taken its toll to a quite unnerving degree.

His wife Wendi helped him to sit at the table before the committee of MPs and whispered words of encouragement as she poured him a glass of water.

For the next three hours, the frail, elderly gent was hesitant, uncertain of his answers and ever ready to put the blame for what had gone wrong on "trusted" lieutenants.

Nick Robinson, the BBC's political editor, commented: “It was hard to equate the man sitting a few feet away from me with the global media mogul feared by political leaders throughout my adult lifetime.”

And then someone thrust a plate of shaving foam in Mr Murdoch's face. What had been billed as the most dramatic piece of political theatre in a generation had descended into farce.

Wife Wendi, having slapped the assailant, sat on the table in front of her husband and wiped away the foam from his face, only stopping to embrace his bald head in her arms.

Many people, myself included, experienced feelings towards Rupert Murdoch we never considered possible: we actually felt sorry for the old fella.

One friend of mine, who writes for a newspaper not in the Murdoch stable, reckoned it was all an act and pointed to the media baron's Uriah Heep-like opening remark that it was "the most humble day of my life".

Others considered his seemingly limitless lack of knowledge of what was happening at his British newspapers to be not so much a failure of corporate governance but a reflection that, these days, it is the US that preoccupies him.

There was, of course, another Murdoch in the room: 38-year-old son James, the overseer of News Corp's interests in Europe and Asia.

He answered all the questions fired at him with a confident slickness that matched his haircut. Perhaps one should expect nothing less from a Harvard graduate.

The playwright Lucy Prebble, who wrote a colour piece on the hearing for The Guardian, was not impressed. "James Murdoch has a face like a Sky TV schedule," she wrote. "In contrast to his father, he seemed almost robotic in his mid-Atlantic delivery.

"One of a corporate generation shorn of character, he was allowed to speak in long, meandering business-speak that obfuscated as much as it bored."

That, though, seems to be the way of it these days. The contrast between the two Murdochs was symbolic not just of the old giving way to the new, but of a fundamental shift from a time when newspaper proprietors could be as maverick as their reporters, to the modern era when business models are more important than underwear ones.

Just to go back 20 years again and another of Rupert Murdoch's visits to The Times newsroom: on this occasion, I was the only one unaware of his presence because I was in the midst of a heated and foul-mouthed tirade against a government press officer who was withholding information.

It was only when I had slammed down the phone that I became aware of the awful silence that had descended. A colleague sitting opposite nodded behind me.

I swivelled round to find the great man, arms folded, scowling at me. Then the scowl morphed into a broad smile. "Well done, young man," he said and walked off.

Somehow, I could not see James Murdoch doing that. Somewhat sadly, I could not see his old dad doing it these days, either.

dsapsted@thenational.ae