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News Corp Chairman and Chief Executive Rupert Murdoch is seen on television screens in an electrical store as he is questioned by a parliamentary committee on phone hacking, in Edinburgh, Scotland July 19, 2011. (David Moir/Reuters/David Moir/Reuters)
News Corp Chairman and Chief Executive Rupert Murdoch is seen on television screens in an electrical store as he is questioned by a parliamentary committee on phone hacking, in Edinburgh, Scotland July 19, 2011. (David Moir/Reuters/David Moir/Reuters)

Not a likeable character in the whole Murdoch drama Add to ...

As TV dramas go, it was all a bit boring until the protester, Jonnie Marbles, turned up and attempted to land a cream pie in Rupert Murdoch's face. That's when viewers were treated to the splendid sight of Murdoch's wife, Wendi Deng, leaping from her chair and swinging her right hand hard at the interloper. Ah yes, one of the unexpected benefits of having a young and fit trophy wife, the cynic might have thought.

Public hearings, in front of politicians or judges, can make for first-rate TV. But only sometimes. U.S. Senate hearings tend to make the best drama, in part because the staging is so familiar. Scenes of people - the good, the bad and merely shifty - appearing before barking senators or members of Congress are used in movies and TV shows. They're formatted. Those situations - from the Iran/Contra hearings to Stephen Colbert testifying, in character, at a House judiciary hearing on the state of agricultural jobs - have a familiar sense of gravitas. The politicians are often on a raised area, looking down at those being questioned. These are politicians skilled at milking the TV cameras.

The Murdochs' appearance in front of the Culture, Media and Sport committee fell between two stools as a TV event. On one hand, it was a deeply serious matter and Murdoch senior and junior were being questioned about appalling newspaper practices that have repulsed the public far and wide. On the other hand, the horseshoe-shaped table of British MPs didn't look like judge and jury.

The casual-looking, office-type chairs and tables diminished gravitas. The accusing MPs sat on the same floor level, and while some were stern they were more casually dressed than their U.S. counterparts. Some in shirtsleeves. Some looked like they were ready to pop round to the pub. Others looked like they might be heading to the golf course. None barked with the true solemnity of an impatient judge.

Still, one looks for clues in the iconography of what the TV screen presents. In this instance, one saw the two Murdochs, in dark suits, white shirts and light-coloured ties, surrounded by men who looked exactly the same. The sense of corporate conformity was forceful - an important visual message in the context of a hearing about who knew what in the Murdoch empire. But most striking was how the camera framed the two Murdochs. They were side-by-side, but the focal point was Wendi Deng - aspiring pugilist, it seems - in a pink blazer over a dark dress. She looked haughty and tense. She folded her arms tightly around herself or stared at her fingernails. She embodied the sense that the private Murdoch world was being rudely invaded.

As for the questions and the answers, the Murdoch tactic was clear. Rupert tried to seem contrite, but did it inelegantly. Early on he interrupted son James to announce that this was "the most humble day of my life," as if he had just remembered he was supposed to say that. James was the management-speak waffler. He even used "going forward," a term to shrivel the heart of anyone toiling at a corporation that values meaningless management-talk. For the longest time, it seemed that both Rupert and James had no knowledge of anything they were asked about. The plausibility of this became weaker as time went on. It was always somebody else who might know about phone-hacking or payments to investigators. One was surprised they didn't use the term "underlings."

After Mr. Marbles's interruption, all drama fizzled. Two businessmen were droning on, mostly saying they didn't recall or didn't know. Thus, the depth of their regrets for actions by the New of the World seemed shallow. They dodged questions and looked, as their own English papers might say, "dodgy."

Then along came the firmer executive Rebekah Brooks. A dramatic-looking woman, thanks to that storm of red hair, she was as snippety as the Murdochs were evasive. But, evasive too. Knew nothing, saw nothing, couldn't recall. One could imagine her inspiring the ire of a pie-throwing protester, and she wouldn't need Wendi Deng to assist in the ensuing brawl. Not a single, sympathetic character among the lot of them, including the pugilist defending her elderly mogul of a husband.

Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

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