When appearing before a parliamentary committee yesterday, the young Murdoch appeared stunned when asked if he knew what willful blindness was.
No matter how serious the subject matter is, there is usually at least one moment of levity during a parliamentary hearing or a civil or criminal trial. And so it was yesterday when James and Rupert Murdoch appeared before a committee investigating the phone hacking scandal that brought down the News of the World that had published for 168 years.
No, the humour was not when Rupert was attacked by a spectator armed with a foamy substance although if he was 40 years younger or James had been the target, the incident may well have been humourous. Athough no one was laughing, the humour came when James appeared not to have a clue about what willful blindness is.
The astonishing answer came when James was being questioned by Liberal Democrat MP Adrian Sanders. Sanders asked James (Transcript, Q. 268) about an article that appeared the previous week in the New Statesman magazine concerning Andy Coulson. Coulson, a former News of the World editor, resigned his position after an editor and a private investigator were jailed for hacking into the voice mails of members of the Royal Family. He then went on to work as a communications director for David Cameron until the scandal further erupted and he resigned that position. Sanders asked about the magazine's claim that Coulson continued to receive wages from News International after he had resigned.
James answered, "I have no knowledge of Andy Coulson's wages after he left the company's employment". Several of the answers James and Rupert gave were in a similar vein, leading those old enough to remember the television show Hogan's Heroes to think of Sergeant Schultz (I hear nothing, I see nothing, I know nothing).
Not knowing if Coulson was paid after his resignation led Sanders to ask James if he was familiar with the term "willful blindness." This led James to ask, "Mr. Sanders, would you care to elaborate?" Elaborate? It was a straightforward question; was he familiar with the term or not. Either he knows what it means or he doesn't. It was a yes or no answer that did not need elaboration. Finally Rupert interjected and said that he was familiar with the term and they "were not ever guilty of that." Did James not know what willful blindness meant or was he simply being willfully blind to its meaning?
Willful blindness is a legal doctrine. Serious criminal offences require some mental element before a person can be adjudged guilty and the person cannot avoid this mental element by intentionally not asking questions or taking steps to inform themselves of what may be an illegal act. The classic example is if A receives a package from B, a known drug dealer, and then holds the package for C. The deliberate refusal of A to examine the package in his possession or otherwise determine its contents in order not to have knowledge that the contents are drugs, constitutes willful blindness. A is guilty of a drug offence just as if he knew the package contained drugs.
Rupert and James Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks and other executives are admitting that phone hacking took place but claiming they had no knowledge of what their underlings were doing. If they are ultimately guilty of a criminal act, it will be on the basis that they should have known but intentionally refused to inform themselves as to what was going on in their company.
It strains credulity to believe James didn't have a clue what willful blindness meant. Arrests of company executives, most notably Brooks, have already been made. James is surrounded by lawyers who are trying to straighten out the many messes the company is in. Surely he would have asked about his possible arrest and what would likely happen if he was arrested and charged.
Then again maybe he didn't ask and he really is willfully blind to willful blindness.
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