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Why James Murdoch had to go

By Tim Willis, Special to CNN
updated 12:37 PM EST, Thu March 1, 2012
A protester dons a mask of James Murdoch outside of News International office in London on Wednesday.
A protester dons a mask of James Murdoch outside of News International office in London on Wednesday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • James Murdoch resigned as the chairman of News International on Wednesday
  • Tim Willis: His I-don't-know-nuthin' stance was becoming untenable in the hacking scandal
  • Willis: Politicians are happy about the resignation and count it as a victory for the public
  • He says the public has far more interest in the death of Davy Jones than Murdoch news

Editor's note: Tim Willis is the editor-in-chief of high50, a website aimed at the active and engaged "Bloomer" generation. He is the author of "Madcap: The Half-Life of Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd's Lost Genius" and "Nigel Dempster and the Death of Discretion."

(CNN) -- Prue Murdoch, the daughter of Rupert by his first marriage, once told me that her abiding memory of her father over the breakfast table was not of his beaming face, but of the back page of a newspaper. One doubts if James Murdoch even remembers that.

Judging by his evidence to the parliamentary inquiry into the "industrial-scale" hacking of innocent parties' phones by the News of the World and The Sun -- over which he presided, as executive chairman of their publisher, News International -- he appears to have suffered so bad a case of amnesia that it's a miracle he even remembered his own name.

That his inquisitors, competitors and shareholders have struggled to believe his evidence is an understatement. Nonetheless, it still came as a surprise when James resigned from his position Wednesday, congratulating himself on the successful launch of the new Sun on Sunday last weekend.

Tim Willis
Tim Willis

Coming so soon after the closure of the News of the World -- in apparent contrition for its despicable and illegal snooping, but in fact because advertisers had withdrawn their support -- the publication of the new Sunday rag has been widely perceived as an act of breathtaking cynicism.

Pundits have even wondered if it was the Murdochs' plan all along to cut costs by replacing two papers with one leaner, seven-day operation. But that's another story. Today's questions are: Why did James go now; and how has his departure played in Parliament, in the press and with the public?

To the first, the quick answer is that his I-don't-know-nuthin' stance was becoming untenable. Even the News of the World's ex-lawyer has pointed the finger at him, and it can only be a matter of time until hard proof of his complicity in either the hacking or its coverup becomes apparent.

At another level, it can be seen as a PR move: Let the parliamentarians think they've got a scalp; and let the public and shareholders think there's a new broom in New International's Augean stable.

If so, it has certainly impressed the money men: News International's share price rose 2% on the news, and there is speculation that the company is being primed for a sale.

Many politicians are also happy. Against all the academic research, it is generally believed that the press has a huge effect on the public's voting intentions. And since the Murdoch press generally leans to the right, while its tormentors lean leftward, they are counting James' resignation as a victory for the common man.

While the Conservative Party has been rather muted on the subject, Labour's deputy leader Harriet Harman has weighed in with veiled demands for James' arrest and prosecution.

But what of the common man? The truth is, he probably doesn't give a flying fig. A friend of mine who works in the popular press tells me that she recently commissioned some research into the attitudes of 1,000 former readers of the News of the World.

"If the paper was still being published, they would still be buying it," she said. "Ninety-five percent of them either didn't know or didn't care about the methods by which the paper got its stories.

"They can feel sympathy for the parents of Milly Dowler [the murdered schoolgirl whose phone was hacked by News of the World investigators], as they can for Charlotte Church [the celebrity singer and another phone hacking victim]. But at the end of the day, their interest in a story will always outweigh any qualms about how it was obtained."

True, the public's interest in the James Murdoch story has hardly been piqued. Most papers have made very little of it. Maybe that's because they have their own misdemeanors to conceal; maybe because, in such a close-knit profession, it limits job prospects to attack the son of a major employer; maybe because of an unspoken convention among the press barons that they don't attack each other.

But one suspects that our editors know what their readers really care about. Today, that's the death of Monkees frontman Davy Jones. And ain't that a shame?

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Tim Willis.

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