For the first time since the phone-hacking scandal broke more than two weeks ago, the Murdochs — Rupert and son James, head of his British media group, News International — appeared in public on Tuesday when they gave evidence before the House of Commons media committee. They were dragged to it, under threat of arrest, after initially saying no. In the light of their evasive and unconvincing performance, it is clear why they had been so reluctant. It was an extraordinary double act in denial, defiance, and faux contrition, which (according to their own newspaper The Times) left “a number of questions unanswered.” For nearly three hours, James and Rupert stonewalled questions with a well-rehearsed script that sought to portray them as innocent victims of their own journalists and executives. Rupert refused to take personal responsibility. “Who then was responsible?” he was asked. “The people I trusted to run it and maybe the people they trusted,” Mr. Murdoch answered. Although he called it “the most humble day of my life,” there was nothing humble either about his or his son's unashamedly self-serving testimony.

MPs on the panel scratched their heads in frustration as the Murdochs insisted they had no knowledge of hacking at the now dead News of the World or attempts by News International to cover up the scandal when they failed to give the police hundreds of incriminating documents. A senior police officer told another parliamentary committee that, when the documents were finally disclosed, it took him just “three to five minutes” to conclude that there had been massive “criminality.” James admitted authorising payment to a victim of hacking but claimed he did not know at the time what the payment was for. Rupert's extraordinary explanation for why he “lost sight” of what went on at NoW was that it was “just 1 per cent” of his global business. He was “absolutely shocked and appalled,” he affirmed, when he learned that NoW had hacked the phone of Milly Dowler, a murdered schoolgirl. Incredibly, Rebekah Brooks, who was NoW's Editor when Dowler's phone was hacked and now faces criminal prosecution on serious charges, claimed that she got to know about it only “two weeks ago.” She defended hiring private detectives to dig up stories and payments to the police arguing that this was “common practice in Fleet Street” at the time. Pawns will be sacrificed but owning up is something top people in the Murdoch empire simply do not do. This is best summed up in a Guardian cartoon in which Rupert insists: “I know nothing! I just did what I was told!! And I'll slap anyone who says different!!!” James, beside him, applauds.

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