Debasing the English Language: What Murdoch Really Said to Parliament

Entangled in his newspapers disgusting practice of hacking into the private e-mails and phones of innocent victims, Rupert Murdoch appeared before Parliament yesterday and boldly took responsibility and apologized. Or did he?

Murdoch took a time honored approach to controversy and scandal. He butchered the English language in the service of his personal and business self-interest, carefully choosing words that cloaked insincerity in the fine linen of humility.

In what is being called an apology he stated, "I also have to say that I failed, I am very sorry about it." Seems straightforward enough.

But now come the verbal gymnastics. First, "It was an omission by me." OK, what is that supposed to mean?! It's the classic "non-denial denial," asserting that while he had nothing to do with the evil act, he would take responsibility for it as head the organization. I didn't do anything wrong, but I'm sorry. The extent of Murdoch's and other executive's knowledge of the hacking is at the heart of the continuing investigation, and not just in Britain. So without directly saying it, he's denying knowledge and intent. Hmmm.

The next step is even better. Not only is Murdoch not personally accountable for the hacking, he's really its victim. "There's no question in my mind that... someone took charge of a cover-up, which we were victim to and I regret." Woof. Rogue hirelings have betrayed and victimized him.

It's a "non-apology apology" to steal a phrase. Back in the day Bill Safire and Bill Schneider would eat this kind of thing alive. Both men understood that journalists do more than repeat statements, they explain what they mean. It may be that Rupert Murdoch was asleep at the switch and a few bad apples caused a problem. It may also be that by word, deed and culture he was the architect of a pervasive attack on the privacy rights of innocent victims. The factual uncertainty about what happened in Murdoch-ville remains, and even Rupert is entitled to the final results of the investigation before we render judgement.

But public people are the custodians of the language and when it is debased or manipulated, deeper wrongs are committed than the deeds of the moment. It is always, always a sign of deeper political and social problems when leaders abuse language for their own purposes. Journalists have to point an accusing finger when the language is bent in the service of protecting the powerful. After all, Murdoch's a newspaper man and ought to be the last one to use double-speak in such an important and delicate matter. "J'accuse."

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