News Corporation has changed tack in the last two days, apologising for "serious wrongdoing" in its British newspaper business. But those at the top know that their contrition will play only a small part in shaping what happens next, writes Cyril Washbrook.
Five days after arriving in Britain, Rupert Murdoch finally delivered an apology to the family of Milly Dowler, whose phone is alleged to have been hacked in 2002 while her fate was still unknown. It was, according to the family's lawyer Mark Lewis, "full and sincere".
News Corporation is running advertisements in all national newspapers this weekend to deliver a wider apology for the criminal behaviour alleged to have been undertaken by the News of the World's journalists and executives. The brief statement, signed by Murdoch, declares three times that the company is "sorry" for what took place.
The shift in News Corp's approach has been abrupt, to the point of being disconcerting.
Murdoch and his company have plainly been behind the eight-ball in dealing with the scandal at News International. The media mogul in particular seems to have been slow to grasp just how destructive the scandal could be for his empire's business interests in Britain and further afield.
Just a day before meeting with Milly Dowler's family, Murdoch had used an interview with The Wall Street Journal to make the demonstrably false claim that his corporation had dealt with the phone-hacking crisis "extremely well in every way possible", and to accuse critics of spouting "total lies" about his company's handling of events.
The unapologetic tone was every bit as misplaced as his public show of support for Rebekah Brooks a few days earlier. Now, he has implicitly repudiated those views: not only apologising to the victims of phone hacking, but acknowledging that "simply apologising is not enough".
The shifting spotlight
But however remorseful he and his lieutenants may be in the wake of what has emerged in the past one and a half weeks, it changes little about the underlying reality.
News Corp cannot control the trajectory of events or dictate what "concrete steps" are demanded from here, especially given that further damaging revelations are certain to come to light. The closure of the News of the World, the withdrawal of the bid for full control of BSkyB and the resignation of Brooks on Friday were all forced upon the corporation - and on Murdoch personally - by the weight of public and political pressure.
The timing of Les Hinton's resignation might have surprised some - if only because Rebekah Brooks clung on at News International so long - but the fact of it did not: with politicians across the Atlantic now beginning to pay attention to the phone-hacking scandal, the demise of a tainted chief was surely only a matter of time.
The resignations of Brooks and Hinton will not allow them to escape the heat, but their exits leave James Murdoch looking decidedly vulnerable, and for good reason.
He has been News International's chairman since 2007, a period marked by a failure to act upon allegations made against the News of the World. Far from having acted swiftly in response to the scandal, as his father bizarrely suggested two days ago, his leadership of News International has become emblematic of News Corp's intransigence.
The younger Murdoch admits that he personally signed off on a sizeable out-of-court settlement to Gordon Taylor, a decision he says he took without having "the full picture" about phone hacking. But while he may well have been was kept in the dark about the extent of alleged criminal behaviour at the News of the World, it is patently obvious that he made little effort of his own to shine a light into the company's murkiest corners.
The phone-hacking crisis, moreover, has been a gift for those News Corp shareholders who object to the Murdoch family's grip over the conglomerate. One group of investors, which is taking legal action against News Corp, claims that Rupert Murdoch has treated the company "like a wholly owned family candy store". They would not mourn the demise of the anointed successor.
Dynastic demise aside, the more immediate concern for James Murdoch and his father will be negotiating next week's appearance before the culture, media and sport select committee. The committee won an early victory on Thursday when the pair decided not to risk testing the reach of the Parliament's disciplinary powers by defying summonses.
Emerging from those hearings with much credibility would seem to be a daunting task. Questions about James Murdoch's role in particular will linger long after he leaves Portcullis House on Tuesday night.
Next Tuesday, I'll be live-tweeting the committee hearings at which evidence will be heard from:
- Sir Paul Stephenson, the Metropolitan Police commissioner (9:00pm AEST, 12:00pm BST); and
- Rebekah Brooks, Rupert Murdoch and James Murdoch (11:30pm AEST, 2:30pm BST).
Follow me on Twitter @spyreporteditor.
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