As Rupert Murdoch picked up the bible on his first appearance at the Leveson enquiry (no, it didn't burst into flames), the sharp-eyed might have spotted a hint of a grin on the old man's cadaverous features. Gone was the doddering, humble pensioner of the last year and in his place sat the very image of Montgomery Burns, the Machiavellian Simpsons character to whom Mr Murdoch has so often been compared. It's a fitting comparison because, at Leveson, old Rupert has released the hounds.
It was a day of exquisite theatre for the News Corp boss. As he sat batting away questions from the supine Robert Jay QC, down the road in Westminster the Cameron/Hunt partnership was suffering the kind of batting collapse more familiar to Geoffrey Boycott. Mr Hunt, in particular, has seen corridors of power turn into corridors of uncertainty.
The beleaguered Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport must go, that much is clear. The damning evidence produced during James Murdoch's hearing on Tuesday is too close to home to leave him untainted, even with a lackey taking the flak. To make matters worse, it appears that when avoiding the scrutiny of the press Mr Hunt has a penchant for hiding behind trees. If the prime minister continues to back his protégé, he will need to wake up and see the woods.
Yesterday's witty ripostes and jests for the gallery were typical Rupert Murdoch. Despite his reputation as a corporate tyrant, the man is frequently described as charm itself. An acquaintance who knew him well still goes misty eyed when talking of 'old Rupert', and even the egomaniacal Piers Morgan admits that he'd once have walked over hot coals for his former employer. After a carefully orchestrated campaign of false humility and some sterling groundwork on Tuesday by James Murdoch (surely Smithers to Rupert's Mr Burns), this was the perfectly choreographed comeback. The loyal, bespectacled Smithers had left his father free to shine.
Rupert was assisted, certainly, by a fairly workaday line of questioning. Almost everything we learned today, save a couple of juicy titbits about the instability of Gordon Brown, can be found in The Man Who Owns the News, the Murdoch biography by Michael Wolff, and almost any other Murdoch source worth its salt. Does he influence his papers editorially? Of course he does. Does he contradict himself as often as the editorials of his beloved Sun? Indeed. Is he the greatest political operator in newspaper history? Undoubtedly.
So Rupert is alive, kicking and well. The question is, does it really matter? For all the theatre of Leveson and the speculation about Murdoch's conquest of prime ministers past and present, his influence will not be felt for much longer. As Mr Murdoch said himself "I love newspapers, my shareholders would like me to get rid of them all." And be rid of them News Corp shall. When the old man dies, with the right kind of eyes you will still be able to see the high water mark of the influence of a newspaper proprietor. In a media-plural, segmented, digital world where newspapers are disappearing faster than the rainforests that they consume, that water mark will never be reached again.
But for now, love him or hate him, you can't deny Rupert Murdoch's style. In February I wrote that the Sun on Sunday would be the old man's last hurrah. I was wrong. I can almost picture him last night cracking the top off a bottle of his beloved Victoria Bitter and settling in front of the television to enjoy evening bulletins that were filled with bluster about "the world's most powerful man", a man who can knock even a double dip recession off the front page. In a stunning reversal it is the British establishment that is once again on the back foot and a cabinet minister that is fighting for his career. Mr Murdoch has come back fighting, but Mr Hunt must fall on his sword.
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