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Viewers see Murdoch in the hot seat, and foamed

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July 19, 2011, 10:43 p.m. |

Committee members react after a protestor, left checked shirt , named on Twitter as Jonnie Marbles, tries to throw a paper plate covered in shaving foam over Rupert Murdoch as he gave evidence to a House of Commons Committee in London on July 19, 2011, on the News of the World phone hacking scandal.
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NEW YORK (AP) — For viewers of Rupert Murdoch's appearance before Parliament, the pie in the face was just icing on the cake. It was also a shocking and appalling twist: The paunchy, plaid-shirted intruder armed with a loaded pie plate had gained access to the presumably secure hearing chamber and splattered Murdoch with what seemed to be foam or shaving cream. Moments later the man was seen in a corridor in police custody, himself also splattered with his foam. Moments after that, he was outdoors, being whisked away in cuffs. He was soon identified as some sort of comedian named Jonnie Marbles.

"A story we just couldn't make up, no matter how hard we tried," said a shaken Fox News Channel commentator, voicing a typical response.

Even without this untoward stunt, the hearing had begun with a built-in curiosity level.

As MSNBC correspondent Michael Isikoff said, "Rupert Murdoch is this Wizard of Oz-type figure — somebody you hear a lot about, clearly very powerful, but very rarely seen in this kind of setting where he has to answer questions in public."

Presumably, many viewers had tuned in to see the man behind the curtain, especially after recent weeks of escalating coverage of phone-hacking scandals and other revelations that have rocked News Corp., the global media empire of which Murdoch is chairman and CEO.

Oft-repeated file footage of Murdoch pictured him on a golf course, taking a phone call in his office, and beaming alongside Rebekah Brooks, his former U.K. newspaper chief who was arrested on Sunday (and testified after him on Tuesday).

But now here was a chance to see the 80-year-old media titan live, uncut and in the hot seat.

The media accommodated public interest. Extensive coverage in the U.S. was provided by networks including CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, Bloomberg TV, C-SPAN, Current TV, CNN International and CNN en Espanol, as well as Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network, which are both owned by News Corp.

Facing a horseshoe-shaped panel occupied by the British lawmakers, Murdoch was seated at a table with his son, James Murdoch, the deputy chief operating officer of the company. Just behind him was the elder Murdoch's attractive young wife, Wendi Deng, who looked on solemnly and occasionally seemed to pat him on the back reassuringly.

If Rupert Murdoch had always seemed by reputation a larger-than-life figure — and his accomplishments seemed to bear it out — here he appeared very Oz-like indeed: a wizened old man, hunched, with his face often downcast.

He interrupted his son's first response, placing his hand on his son's arm and stating: "I would just like to say one sentence: This is the most humble day of my life."

James Murdoch, smooth and corporate in style, did most of the talking. He never lost his composure and was crisply deferential, even if at times he got a bit tangled in syntax while expressing sorrow at not knowing more, and earlier, about the company he helps run: It's "a matter of deep frustration, mine, I have to tell you, I know, and I sympathize with the frustration of this committee, and it's a matter of real regret that the facts could not emerge and could not be gotten to, to my understanding, faster," he said as part of one answer.

Meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch refused to be upstaged, or cowed.

At times, he was defiant in his lack of information.

"I need to say something, and this is not an excuse, maybe it's an explanation," he declared at one point, before noting that News Corp. has 53,000 employees "who are proud and great and ethical and distinguished," and that he couldn't be expected to keep up with all of them.

After more than two hours of testimony, the final questioner, Louis Mensch, was asking her first question to James Murdoch when viewers saw him glance to his left and register shock. He jumped to his feet, but Wendi Deng seemed to lunge for the would-be attacker, swatting him. After a short scuffle, he was taken away and the hearing was briefly recessed.

When the questioning resumed, the public and the press had been banished.

"My questions will be just as tough as ever they would have been," said Mensch, "had that unfortunate incident not occurred."

Rupert Murdoch, now in his shirt sleeves and clearly unfazed by the pie ambush, waited as she phrased her next query, "Before we were so rudely interrupted ..."
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