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Tuesday 19th July 2011 | 20:22
Some reporters brave war zones, dodging bullets, barbed wire and bloodthirsty militias.
But the Westminster front line held its own dangers as the foam-flecked shrapnel flew in the Wilson Room. Dear reader, I can tell you, it was hell in there.
From the split second the mystery protestor's fake custard pie was thrust onto Rupert Murdoch's shining bonce, it was mayhem. Wife Wendi was a dervish, springing into action faster than her husband could say "I'm humbled". And yes, I got caught in the crossfire as the shaving cream splattered across the press bench. As Glenn Mulcaire might say, it's a dirty job, but someone's gotta do it.
We should have known that something was up during the hours we queued up outside Portcullis House to get into the DCMS Select's pre-billed Most-Amazing-Historic-Committee-Hearing-In-History.
As TV crews did their interviews with the waiting throng, some of the queue was surprisingly quiet. The quietest group of twentysomethings turned out to be precisely the group of early protestors who unfurled posters during the first minutes of the meeting. "The People V Murdoch" read one. "Murdoch: Wanted for News Crimes" another gently pleaded. It was all very small scale, almost apologetic and utterly British.
After the trio did their stuff and were escorted out, one Plod uttered the immortal line: "Has anybody else got pieces of paper they're going to hold up?" No one did. Then again, strictly speaking, that was the wrong question to ask the man whom we later dubbed The Foam Hacker. He did have a piece of paper: but it was a plate.
We had to wait a long time for military action. It was only as Louise Mensch, the chick-lit author and MP, got into her stride that I noticed some movement out of the corner of my eye. A pallid looking student type, with messy hair and lumberjack shirt, was getting up to leave.
I didn't blame LumberjackBoy, as life was getting a tad boring by then. At first I, like my press colleagues, thought the only noteworthy thing about this youth was that he was going to get mightily embarassed by walking behind the key witnesses, live on telly, to get out.
Then he struck. It was all pretty quick, but LumberjackBoy muttered something like "You greedy billionaire" and produced one particular 'umble pie that Murdoch was perhaps unprepared to eat. The foam was thrust forcefully onto Murdoch's forehead.
As we blokes on the press bench meekly looked on (shaving cream is a daily hazard for us, of course), it was upto the women in Murdoch's life to leap into action like Harrison Ford/Clint Eastwood/Kevin Costner and any other Hollywood bodyguard you can mention. News Corp's legal eagle Janet Nova was the first to get in a blocking arm, but the pie still managed to get through her defences. Wendi Murdoch then clattered the pieman with a right hook, in the process spreading the foam shrapnel far and wide.
The TV cameras didn't capture the image, but the world's most powerful media mogul was reduced to looking like a clown in Billy Smart's Circus, wiping his face and specs. It's not a sight I will forget quickly.
After LumberjackBoy was bundled out of the room and cuffed, a hapless constable remained, his own face comincally covered with the white stuff. Perfumed blobs hit my ear and suit but I carried on reporting manfully. Heck, somebody's gotta do the job of providing the nation with its Parliamentary Twitterings.
At the height of the mayhem, ex Lib Dem MP and Hacked Off! campaigner Dr Evan Harris sprinted down the corridor and into the room. Someone shouted "There's a doctor here!" and Harris checked over Murdoch. Bizarre is the word. (Harris later tweeted that Murdoch needs a lawyer rather than a doctor).
Team Murdoch were certainly furious with the cops for not protecting their man properly and told them so, wondering why anyone could be allowed to bring in such vicious weapons as, well, foam pies. Not for nothing did a chastised committee agree to allow Murdoch a closing statement, having denied his opener.
Thinking about it, it was rather ingenious of the protestor to bring in an aerosol and paper plate. No one saw him squirt his pie into action under his seat but it must have taken some skill and practice. A budding private investigator in the making? I'm just pleased the pie wasn't culinary and that we weren't all taken into custardy.
The hearing itself was a marathon and certainly matched the hype, if not in new revelations but at least in terms of human drama.
Things started badly for Rupert and he looked every one of his 80 long years on this earth. He was faltering, slow, clearly unable to hear some questions properly, at times taking agonisingly long pauses to give replies to detailed questions from inquisitor-in-chief Tom Watson.
James Murdoch at first looked like he wanted to take charge and rescue his father. Wendi patted her hubby on the back almost like a granddaughter would. At times, I thought he'd just slumped into a snooze.
But over time, it was Murdoch senior who asserted himself and showed the steel that made him one of the most formidable men on the planet. Murdoch junior, meanwhile, displayed a David Brent-like capacity for management cobblers, talking of "pushback" and (that horrible modern nothingness) "we are where we are".
At one hilarious point, Murdoch junior explained the chain of responsibility thus: "There are thresholds of materiality where something has to be moved upstream". Murdoch senior translated succinctly: "Anything that is seen as a crisis comes to me".
James told us repeatedy that he was "not a lawyer" and then proceeded to deliver his lawyerly catchphrase of "not to my knowledge" to most questions. Time and again, he hid behind the lawyers Harbottle and Lewis who had been drafted in to advise on hacking and who failed to discover the extent of the illegality.
Rupert increasingly tapped the table with his hand, a simple gesture that provided menacing punctuation to his key points. His son warned his dad for gesticulating too much, one of several instances of touch between the father and son. The most striking came earlier, when Murdoch senior's mottled hand stopped his son to deliver his soundbite that "today is the most humble day of my life".
As he finally got into the rhythm of things, it was Rupert who delivered the barbed humour too. His line about Prime Ministers - "I wish they would leave me alone" - was a classic. He was loyal to his senior staff such as Les Hinton and showed remarkable finesse for a nonagenarian in trying not to dump on his team while never admitting he had been told anything about phone hacking. "Nobody kept me in the dark..I may have been lax in not asking more questions".
In one of the most surreal remarks of the day, Murdoch even said that MPs and ministers should be paid more, not less, for their public service. Citing Singapore's million dollar salaries for ministers, he said of the British expenses scandal: "It's ridiculous that people were reduced to doing what they did". Yes, you read that right.
After all that, Rebekah Brooks almost seemed like an afterthought. For a woman who has been arrested and subjected to 10 hours of Sweeney-style interrogation, she was at times more impressive and composed than the two Murdochs: more cogent than James in explaining the legal costs to convicted criminals, more direct than Rupert about her never sanctioning acts of blagging on her watch at News of the World.
Not once did Brooks use her lawyer to refuse to answer questions and in fact the only people who had to correct themselves were the MPs.
There were gaps in her evidence and subtle non-answers, but the committee seemed too exhausted by it all to get too forensic. We did get her revealing she met Blair and Brown six times a year in Number 10, whereas she hadn't met David Cameron once in Downing Street since he came to power.
Brooks did add that Cameron "is a neighbour and a friend" but added their relationship was "wholly appropriate". She also told us "the allegation is that I told the Prime Minister to hire Andy Coulson. The idea came from George Osborne".
There may well be a lot further to go in this saga. But after today (particularly the Yates and Stephenson lines ponting to Number 10) it looks as though it will be David Cameron who has the trickier job for the time being.
Maybe he should bring Sam Cam to the Commons tomorrow. Just in case anyone is tempted to chuck custard at his Eton Mess.
UPDATE: JudyK has written a blog on how she sat next to LumberjackBoy - now named as Jonathan May-Bowles - for most of the day. Read it here. Sadly, I didn't catch her at the committee.
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