By William Pfaff

Slapstick was a suitable accompaniment to the statements by Rupert and James Murdoch to a parliamentary committee in London, and to Prime Minister David Cameron's performance in the House of Commons concerning the intimate relations that exist between News International's London newspapers and the present (and recent; one shouldn't be partisan) British government.

A foam pie was thrust into the face of the senior Murdock, instantly batted away by his 42-year-old Chinese third wife, Wendi Deng, a volleyball ace, now a presumptive heir to the biggest international press group the world has ever seen. A Labour MP congratulated her on her "very good left hook."

The 80-year-old Mr. Murdoch made an evasive gesture, in contrast to his seeming torpor during most of the session, interrupted by aggressive assertions that he knew nothing of the abuses and crimes alleged to have been committed by his newspapers, bore no responsibility whatever for them, all of them committed by "people that I trusted" who had let him down.

His son, James, knew even less, having arrived in London only in 2007, when the telephone hacking and subsequent police corruption scandals had already become known. Three persons who had brought civil actions against the company already had secretly been given a million sterling to shut up about the affair.

Nor in their turns did the now just-resigned Commissioner of Metropolitan Police, Sir Paul Stephenson, and John Yates, assistant police commissioner, also resigned, and former head of the anti-terrorism branch, suspect anything awry in the initial complaints of phone hacking by the News of the World in 2007. They found nothing except a stolen item about the skinned knee of one of the young royal princes, for which the News of the World royalty reporter and a private detective were punished. Several trash bags containing unexamined hacking evidence were in storage at Scotland Yard at the time, opened only recently.

Nevertheless, neither Rupert nor James Murdoch, nor their most important London editor and subsequent chief executive of News International, Rebekah Brooks, who also testified at the hearing, knew anything more about anything illegal happening in the past than you or I might have known at the time.

They were all shocked, and truly horrified, at the discoveries of recent weeks, and all were truly, truly sorry. James wants a special group to examine the whole problem of newspaper integrity and press and government relations in Britain, in which he hopes others would join, to get to the very bottom of the matter and truly institute fundamental reforms so as to make Britain a better place to live.

These professional journalists were so overcome by emotion that they lost their capacity to handle language, so that the senior Murdoch, a graduate of Geelong Grammar School ("the Australian Eton"), holding a degree in PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) from Worcester College, Oxford, repeatedly claimed that Tuesday was the most "humble" day of his life (humiliating? shamed? humbling?).

Mrs. Brooks, locally educated in Warrington, Cheshire, who went to work as a secretary for the News of the World eleven years ago at age 20, passionately concluded her testimony with the promise that she would give more "fulsome answers" to the questions put to her were she not currently on release on bail, following arrest last Sunday, 12 hours of police interrogation and resignation from the company.

All of these people's great and good friend, a member of the same smart "Chipping Norton" set, Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron, told the special session of the House of Commons on Wednesday, which he had called and flown back from Africa to attend, that he too knew nothing about anything, but that, had he known then what he now knew, he might not have done things that he did do.

In short, we seem to be expected to believe that the Prime Minister, the Murdochs, Mrs. Brooks and two of the most senior policemen in Britain, all were born yesterday. The Murdoch sessions were buttered with hypocrisy and public relations gabble. The prime minister's session was rousing and raucous but settled nothing.

That is to come.

In Britain and the United States, governments have now fallen all but totally under the domination of greed and special interest. Political intimidation is common. Money is so important to political success in the U.S. that newly elected legislators are expected to sign what amount to loyalty oaths to foreign as well as commercial interests. Both countries are now blackmailed by corporate business.

The Murdoch press's intimidation of British politicians and officials is a special case, perhaps, but there are as yet unexplored American dimensions to the scandal as well. The British inquirers are asking whether the families of Americans killed in the 9/11 attacks were hacked by British or American investigators in search of those heart-rending or scandalous stories in which the British Murdoch newspaper specialized. Fox television commentators notoriously invent "facts."

A second American issue concerns the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977, which carries severe penalties for violation by any American person or corporation. The Australian Murdochs arranged American citizenship when business interests seemed to dictate this adjustment of loyalties. Their corporate interests, formerly legally based in Australia, have been Delaware corporations since 2004.

The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act forbids American citizens and corporations from payments or other transfers of value to a foreign official to influence any act in violation of the duties of that official, or to secure advantages. The U.S. Department of Justice is collaborating with the British Serious Fraud Office to determine whether News Corporation newspapers violated this and comparable British laws by bribing British police officers. A question exists with respect to News Corporation efforts to obtain that part of the BSkyB satellite television company that it does not already own, a property of far greater potential value to the Murdoch organization than its London newspapers. That effort was avowedly renounced last weekend. But the story goes on.


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