BREAKINGVIEWS - Murdoch junior leaps to defence of feebler father

Wed Jul 20, 2011 12:20pm IST

BSkyB Chairman James Murdoch (L) and his father, News Corp Chief Executive and Chairman Rupert Murdoch, appear in images made from television as they are questioned by parliamentary committee on phone hacking at Portcullis House in London July 19, 2011. REUTERS/Parbul TV via Reuters Tv

BSkyB Chairman James Murdoch (L) and his father, News Corp Chief Executive and Chairman Rupert Murdoch, appear in images made from television as they are questioned by parliamentary committee on phone hacking at Portcullis House in London July 19, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Parbul TV via Reuters Tv

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(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

By Robert Cole

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Shaving foam apart, News Corp's founder and his son escaped their UK hearing broadly unscathed. Their studied display of polite contrition neutered questions from members of parliament. But while James Murdoch gave an assured performance, Rupert Murdoch appeared bemused and out of touch.

Murdoch senior may attract some sympathy after being accosted by a protester. Prior to that intervention, however, the media mogul had failed to live up to his formidable reputation. He looked every bit the 80-year-old man he is.

His performance showed little of the micro-managerial control that many have long assumed he exerts over his UK newspapers. The pauses that preceded many of his responses were almost embarrassing. He often deferred to his son, who frequently helped his father answer questions.

The hearing is not the end of the line for Rupert Murdoch. But investors could be forgiven for wondering if he still has the requisite energy to continue as News Corp's chairman and chief executive officer for much longer.

In surprisingly stark contrast, James Murdoch appeared sharp, helpful and authoritative. There were a couple of awkward moments, notably when the two were asked about help with legal fees incurred by the private investigator at the centre of the phone-hacking scandal, as well as payments to Gordon Taylor, the sports administrator. James Murdoch probably divulged less than he appeared to, but he will count that as an achievement.

The junior Murdoch is not out of the woods yet. Further revelations in the phone-hacking case could yet compromise his roles at News Corp, and as chairman of British Sky Broadcasting. But if the scandal lifts, his influence over the company his father built will increase.

News Corp shares, which had fallen by 17 percent since the scandal broke at the start of July, rose 5 percent. This may be interpreted as a vote of confidence in the Murdochs' ability to steer News Corp out of its troubles. But it may also reflect relief that the hearing served up no new horrors.

The share-price rise may also signal a hope that the Murdoch family's fierce grip over the media empire is on the wane. Rupert's performance did nothing to dispel that impression.

CONTEXT NEWS

-- Rupert Murdoch, the chairman and chief executive of News Corporation, the New York-listed media company, appeared before a committee of UK parliamentarians on July 19.

-- His son James, who is deputy chief operating officer of News Corp and chairman of BSkyB, the satellite broadcaster 39 percent owned by News Corp, appeared alongside him.

(Editing by Peter Thal Larsen and Martin Langfield)

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