Looking frail, sometimes hesitant, but with flashes of the anger and passion for which he is known, Rupert Murdoch came before Parliament yesterday to apologise for the phone hacking at his best-selling British newspaper, describing it as "the most humble day of my career".
It felt like the eclipse of the Sun King. By the end of the three-hour session, MPs, TV viewers and News Corp's board and investors had watched him struggling for words, seen his son reaching out to him with a comforting arm, and stared at his wife leaping to rescue him from physical assault. As a family drama it had everything, including, ultimately, a passionate performance from the leading man.
Mr Murdoch tried to defend, explain and justify the actions of the company he has built up over the last half century and which now faces the greatest crisis in its history. In the process, he revealed details of his dealings with prime ministers, editors and his most senior lieutenants, and pledged to "work tirelessly" to merit the forgiveness of the phone-hacking victims.
The octogenarian was asked by the Conservative MP Louise Mensch if he planned to resign. He found his voice. Some of his employees had "behaved disgracefully, betrayed me and the company and it's for them to pay". Refusing to stand down, he said: "I'm the best person to clean this up".
He appeared lost under questioning from Tom Watson, the Labour MP who has done most to penetrate the veil of secrecy that some at News International have attempted to throw around the scandal. He gave curt one-word responses and tried to emphasise his points by banging the desk in front of him.
News Corp's share price rose 6%: some analysts said it was a positive response to what appeared to be the final moments of Rupert's reign at the top of the business. Others took the view that the MPs had failed to produce a coup de grace.
"My company has 52,000 employees. I have led it for 57 years and I have made my share of mistakes," he declared. "I have lived in many countries, employed thousands of honest and hard-working journalists, owned nearly 200 newspapers. I would like all the victims of phone hacking to know how completely and deeply sorry I am. Apologising cannot take back what has happened. Still, I want them to know the depth of my regret for the horrible invasions into their lives."
During intense and sometimes hostile questioning from MPs on the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee, Mr Murdoch and his son James revealed:
- News International had - and may still be - paying the legal fees of their jailed royal correspondent, Clive Goodman, and the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire. James Murdoch said when he found this out he asked senior executives, "why are we doing this". He was told it was the result of legal advice.
- They appeared to blame a large city law firm and the company's head of legal affairs, Jon Chapman, for failing to pass on details of serious criminal wrongdoing at the company which was contained in a file held by the company for at least three years before it was given to the police.
- They denied that the decision to close the News of the World was the result of an effort to save the company's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks. "We felt ashamed at what happened," said Mr Murdoch senior. "We had broken our trust with our readers."
- They backed both Mrs Brooks and the company's chief executive at the time of the hacking, Les Hinton. "I would trust him with my life," Rupert Murdoch said.
While James Murdoch was technocratic in his answers - at one stage referring to the "quantum of damages", Rupert was more expansive.
He revealed he had been forced to go into Downing Street by the back door after the last election because either Mr Cameron or his aides did not want him to be seen entering the building.
"I just did what I was told," he added. "That's the choice of the Prime Minister, or their staff, or whoever does these things. I was asked would I please come in through the back door. I was invited within days (of the election) to have a cup of tea to be thanked for the support by Mr Cameron."
Asked about his relationships with successive prime ministers, Mr Murdoch replied: "I wish they'd leave me alone."
But he expressed sorrow that his relationship with Gordon Brown had broken down over the hacking revelations. He said at one stage their children had played together and expressed hope that eventually they would be able to "put [their relationship] together again."