As he battles to restore his media conglomerate's reputation as the British hacking inquiry continues, News Corp. head Rupert Murdoch found himself in more hot water this week.
On the second day of the UK media ethics inquiry chaired by Lord Justice Brian Leveson about the Australian-born mogul’s intertwined political influence and business interests, Murdoch stepped into it by describing British Prime Minister David Cameron's late son Ivan as "retarded." In fact, Ivan Cameron was afflicted with cerebral palsy and epilepsy and died at age six in 2009.
In a world where the term "retarded" is unacceptable, Murdoch said of Cameron, “I first met him once, maybe even twice, at family picnics at weekends at my daughter's house in the grounds of Blenheim Castle (Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire) where he came with his family. We were overrun with children, there were no politics. But I was extremely impressed at the kindness and feeling he showed to the children, particularly to his retarded son.”
No sooner had he said the word (judged the most insulting term related to disability by BBC viewers in 2009) than the floodgates opened. Mark Gale, campaigns and policy officer for UK-based learning disability charity Mencap, said: “The use of the word is completely outdated and it is quite shocking that someone of Rupert Murdoch's standing, who is supposed to be close to public views and the public opinion, would be so careless in his choice of language.”
Murdoch also denied any involvement in the appointment of former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as Cameron's communications chief in May 2007, recalled that an 'unbalanced' Gordon Brown 'declared war' on his media empire after switching to support the Tories at the last election, and recounted details of his conversation with the former Prime Minister as reported in the Daily Mail.
Brown said: “Well, your company has declared war on the government. We have no alternative but to declare war on your company.”
Murdoch replied: “I'm sorry to hear that Gordon,” then added, “In ten years of his power, I never asked Tony Blair for anything, nor indeed did I receive any favours. I've never asked a Prime minister for anything” and denied talking to Cameron about the £8bn BSkyB bid which launched the month after Cameron took power.
In further testimony, Murdoch said he "panicked" when he abruptly closed the News of the World tabloid last year as a response to the hacking scandal, and acknowledged the whole matter as a "serious blot" on his (and the company's) reputation: "I panicked, but I'm glad I did…I've spent hundreds of millions of dollars" cleaning up News Corp. subsidiary News International, he said. "We are now a new company altogether."
Murdoch, who also outlined how he thought there was a "cover-up," admitted he didn't do enough to ‘nip the scandal in the bud,’ saying, "I failed. And I'm sorry about it." He spoke of his shock at the size of the 2008 payout made to one of the first phone hacking victims who sued News International, putting him at odds with his son James, who earlier told the inquiry he didn’t know the amount.
"The size seemed incredible," Murdoch said. "It still does seem incredible." The admission is key, as a $1 million settlement is 10 to 20 times larger than the average breach of privacy payout, and perceived in some quarters as hush money to keep a lid on the brewing scandal.
The first day of the inquiry was filled with dramatic silences and equally memorable Murdoch sound bites, such as:
• On Sarah Brown's slumber party attended by Rebekah Brooks: "I think there were just a bunch of women, mainly complaining about their husbands probably."
• On The Sun's political allegiances: "We are perhaps the only independent newspaper in this business."
• On the News of the World phone hacking: "I'm not disowning it or saying it wasn't my responsibility, but I was always closer to The Sun."
• On why he uses the back door of Downing Street for his visits: "It happens to be a shortcut to my apartment."
Your thoughts on the impact to Murdoch's media empire and brands as the hacking inquiry continues? Post a comment below.