How to Withstand a Parliamentary Inquiry
Recently, the top executives of the Rupert Murdoch British (and worldwide) media empire have been under attack — and some have been arrested — in relation to potential criminal activities. Primary of these were the illegal hacking into private phones and pay-offs to police for information. The primary media outlet under investigation has been News International, the British showpiece of the Murdoch empire. The News is noted for its intrusive, racy tabloid journalistic style — one much imitated in Britain.
Now, Rupert Murdoch himself and his son James have appeared before a parliamentary investigatory committee. Also subjected to questioning has been Rebekah Brooks, a long-time member of Murdoch’s inner circle, and formerly head of News International — a position from which she resigned after much pressure was brought to bear on her, and Brooks was finally arrested and questioned by police for the better part of a day behind closed doors.
The Murdochs and Brooks agreed to testify before a parliamentary committee, without counsel, in internationally broadcast proceedings. No American executive would agree to such an arrangement, and none could be forced to give such testimony (and particularly Ms. Brooks, following her arrest), since the U.S. Constitution provides for an absolute right to avoid self-incrimination.
But the Murdochs and Brooks know something American executives (like heads of oil companies, automakers, cigarette manufacturers and steroid-using ballplayers) are seemingly inured to — that these forums offer a golden opportunity to look open, cooperative, and guiltless.
This can take some effort, since Ms. Brooks has already been arrested, and there is great skepticism that she hasn’t knowingly been involved in these activities for which underlings have been arrested, and in some cases they have admitted. All of which makes her chutzpah in appearing “naked” before parliament all the more incredible.
And here is how it is done:
1. Appear repentant: Speak softly, don’t argue, refer respectfully to the officials questioning you, and do not — repeat, never — get on your high horse. This can be a difficult job for people like Brooks and the Murdochs, who are known for the very opposite types of personality traits and management styles. But, in session, they know either to glance down (Brooks, a demure woman) or forthrightly into a questioner’s eyes — but not defiantly (the Murdochs).
2. Say “pardon me” a lot and ask for questions to be repeated, looking slightly confused (see series of Brooks pictures) — like “You can’t expect me to get your gist,” but without saying anything so confrontational. This has the impact of killing time (they’re not going to keep you there for eight hours), looking like you are seriously trying to interpret the meaning of your interrogator, putting you in a modest position of seeking clarification; whereas, in real life, you may frequently scream demeaning things at people you regard as stupid.
3. Claim ignorance, ignorance, ignorance. “My lord, I only learned of these horrible goings on by reading about them in the paper recently.” You know, like Captain Renault being shocked to learn gambling was going on at Rick’s in Casablanca. Or (dare I say it) people who end up on trial for political crimes. This can be tricky, since you and your organization have claimed to have carried out your own investigations of these things; and confidently announced the results which the police, parliament, and the non-implicated press (if any remains) are now all discounting.
Just by appearing publicly, paying obeisance to the process, looking modest and accountable (even when your track record shows no signs of this being your usual disposition), you will safely float through the hearing and, who knows, you may gain enough public and media sympathy to call the dogs off of you professionally and legally, and preserve your job and/or your business holdings. Or (in Brooks’ case) allow you to soon return to your position of prestige and power, where you don’t have to put on such an act.
Somehow, these Brits know something that American executives have a hard time mastering. Contrast their performances with the argumentative, self-righteous, simply in-your-face deceptive attitudes that characterize many who have testified in steroid, cigarette, and oil-spill hearings before Congress, and you’ll see that the correct demeanor is worth a hundred attorneys.