Anyone reading the tweets from unknown British comedian Jonnie Marbles on Tuesday afternoon may have wondered what he meant when he quoted Charles Dickens' "It is a far better thing that I do now than I have ever done before." Moments later, Rupert Murdoch found out when he was attacked by the joker, armed with a theatrical custard pie, as he and his son James attempted to explain and apologize for their part in the phone-hacking scandal that has pitched their News Corp. empire into crisis.
Cynics amongst those watching the action from inside and around the House of Commons immediately declared that Marbles had succeeded where the parliamentary committee had failed he, at least, had managed to land a blow on Rupert Murdoch, albeit a relatively inoffensive foam one. That may be unfair but, after three hours of sometimes intense and forensic questioning by the legislators, there were few genuine revelations or anything that would have allowed the committee to conclude that they had finally got to the bottom of the scandal. It appears that the real answers will have to await the outcome of the ongoing police and judicial inquiries.
And, once again, while the Murdochs' appearance may have attracted the world's media and produced scenes not witnessed in the British parliament for decades, the shockwaves from the affair continue to spread farther and wider. The pressure is intensifying on Prime Minister David Cameron, who has cut short a visit to Africa to return to parliament to answer questions on Wednesday over his employment of former News of the World editor Andy Coulson just months after he had resigned from the newspaper over the original hacking scandal while insisting he had been unaware of the practice.
On Tuesday, the Conservative Party confirmed reports that former News of the World deputy editor Neil Wallis, who worked under Coulson and was arrested last week over the hacking affair and released on bail, may have provided "informal advice" to his former boss while he was on Cameron's payroll.
Inevitably, though, the day was dominated by the Murdochs' unprecedented appearance at a parliamentary committee. They were there to answer a series of questions over exactly what they knew, and when they knew it. Also inevitably, however, many of the committee's detailed questions about individuals allegedly involved in the scandal were batted away by the Murdochs with the answer that they could say nothing that might prejudice the police and judicial inquiries. The committee members were ready for that, but had little choice other than to comply.
Rupert Murdoch, who declared his appearance before the committee "the most humble day of my career," appeared to have little knowledge of things that had been going on at his now defunct News of the World tabloid, saying it had represented just 1% of his business operation. His responses were often abrupt "no" or "I don't know" and punctuated by long pauses as he seemed to trawl his memory, or search for a response. His son James was a far smoother character, and time and again he sought to come to his father's aid, answering for him.
What the committee did learn was that the Murdochs' UK operation, News International, is still paying some of the legal fees of private detective Glenn Mulcaire, who was jailed in 2007 along with News of the World Royal correspondent Clive Goodman after the first, limited hacking inquiry. James Murdoch insisted he was as "surprised and shocked" as the MPs when he discovered this, while Murdoch senior added he would stop the payments if there is no contractual reason not to.
On the subject of the GBP 700,000 ($1.1 million) out-of-court settlement that James Murdoch paid the head of the Professional Footballers' Association, Gordon Taylor, in 2008 after Taylor claimed to have had his phone hacked, the MPs heard the younger Murdoch explain he had paid the settlement believing it was a hangover from the original hacking investigation and not "hush money" intended to cover up wider phone-hacking allegations. Rupert Murdoch insisted he knew nothing of the payment until more recently. Asked about the FBI investigation into claims by The Daily Mirror tabloid, a rival to the Murdoch papers, that the phones of 9/11 victims had been hacked, Rupert Murdoch declared: "I have seen no evidence of that at all and as far as I know the FBI have not. I cannot believe it happened with anyone in America."
And, despite lengthy attempts to find someone responsible for the phone-hacking scandal, the parliamentary committee could only get from Rupert Murdoch the declaration that he was certainly not responsible but had been let down by people within his organization whom he had trusted, "and maybe the people they trusted." Both men continued to repeat their fulsome apologies to victims of phone hacking, particularly the family of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler whose voicemail was allegedly hacked and some of the messages deleted while she was still missing. "I was absolutely shocked, appalled and ashamed when I heard about the Milly Dowler case two weeks ago," said Murdoch senior.
When asked if, as captain of the Murdoch ship, he should now follow the actions of his senior staff, including former chief executive Rebekah Brooks, and resign, Rupert Murdoch answered: "No, because I feel that the people I trusted, I don't know at what level, let me down and I think they behaved disgracefully, betrayed the company and me and it's for them to pay. And I think that I'm the best person to clear this up."
Brooks, who was herself arrested on Sunday and questioned in relation to hacking and alleged corruption, later told the same committee that she had never knowingly sanctioned payments to police officers a practice that during a 2003 investigation she told the committee had taken place. She also insisted she had only found out the alleged extent of the hacking last year, after civil cases were launched by celebrities including Sienna Miller.
All three witnesses fell back on the Metropolitan police's decision in 2009 not to re-open the original investigation which had ended with just Mulcaire and Goodman being sentenced and jailed, saying they believed there was no more to the case. For their part, the police on Tuesday repeated previous claims that their original inquiries had been hampered by a lack of cooperation from News International. Former assistant commissioner John Yates, who resigned on Monday over the affair, told a separate parliamentary committee: "We must remember it's not the police that have failed, it's News International that have failed to provide us with the evidence."
To that extent it was a frustrating day for the parliamentary committees, who are left still searching for those elusive individuals who knew the full extent of the hacking and perhaps wondering if they will ever find them.