LONDON, United Kingdom — A one-time only production, four decades in the making, was given today at Portcullis House, an office building across from the Houses of Parliament. Rupert Murdoch finally testified before a House of Commons Select Committee.
A little over 40 years ago the global media tycoon bought a single British newspaper, The News of the World. From that base he built a company that controls 40 percent of British newspaper circulation and owns a managing stake in the country's most lucrative satellite cable television company, BSkyB. His control of so much media made Murdoch the most feared, admired and despised person in Britain — and he doesn't even live here.
He was a bogeyman and totem — credited with being a maker and destroyer of prime ministers and members of parliament. A coarsener of British life, who was above and beyond the laws of the land.
And that was before the phone-hacking scandal engulfed the News of the World. Now that paper has gone, Murdoch and his son James, who runs his British operations, are in 24/7 damage limitation mode and so finally Murdoch, after initially resisting, bowed his knee and came before the representatives of the people.
Do I sound a bit overblown and Shakespearean?
Believe me that is the level this afternoon's one-time only show reached. As theater it had everything: drama, comedy, pathos and a dollop of violence. And at nearly three hours of testimony it was Shakespearean in length, as well.
The Commons Committee on Culture, Media and Sport was called to order just after 2:30 p.m. and almost immediately there was a small ruckus as protesters tried to get into the tiny hearing room.
This was live theater framed for television, and the first shot provided a shock that never quite went away. Rupert Murdoch and James Murdoch seated side by side in not quite identical blue suits — Rupert's had a discreet pinstripe — was a strange juxtaposition. The younger Murdoch is just 38, fit, tanned and handsome. His father, 80, bald with sagging jowls looked frail and slightly out of it.
This first impression was amplified when the committee chairman, Conservative MP John Whittingdale, denied the Murdochs' request to read a short statement. Whittingdale clearly wanted to let the pair know that he was running the show not them.
Murdoch, would not be completely circumvented. He put his hand on his son's arm and said hoarsely, "This is the most humble day of my life." Then sank back into his chair.
Then the drama began in earnest.
Tom Watson, a Labour MP who has been the most dogged pursuer of the truth behind the phone hacking and other illegal practices at Murdoch's newspaper, asked a few questions of James Murdoch about the scandal. The Princeton-educated son is fluent in management-speak and said much by saying little and speaking it in jargon. He had arrived at the company after the worst of the scandal was done, he explained, he had authorized out-of-court settlements with two people who were suing News International because their phones had been hacked. If he had the benefit of hindsight he might have handled matters differently.
Watson is not a lawyer but he knows as much about the case as Murdoch and probed and probed. Murdoch's only outward sign of physical weakness are the wire-rimmed glasses he wears. Would he break? Would he break?
Just when the test of wills seemed to be a stand-off, Watson switched to the elder Murdoch. Question after question and the octogenarian often seemed baffled or at a loss for words. James kept trying to intervene to save his old man embarrassment. Watson plowed on. Finally he drew a bit of temper from the senior Murdoch. There was no way he could be expected to know the details of what was going on at The News of the World. Pounding the table with the flat of his palm he croaked, "I employ 53,000 people around the world. The News of the World represented 1 percent of my company."
Still Watson bored in with questions about what Murdoch knew .... the silences grew longer. Pitiful and pitiable is how the old man looked when Watson yielded his time to Jim Sheridan, a Labour MP from Scotland.
After the drama, the comedy.
Is it true, Sheridan wanted to know, that when he went to visit David Cameron, just after the Prime Minister moved into Downing Street a year ago, that he was told to go in through the back door? Why not the front door, that's where heads of state go in? The implication was that not only was Cameron trying to keep Murdoch's visit a secret, but that despite his great power, the press baron still had to use the tradesman's entrance. There were a few titters throughout the audience.
The committee's questions alternated between the forensic — what did you know and when do you know it — and the kind of interrogation you would expect the headmaster at a posh private school (public school as they call them here) would give to an uppity student.
As the performance wore on both Murdochs found a dozen ways to say that phone hacking and everything related to it were several pay grades beneath them. The committee seemed to lose its edge. From somewhere deep inside his crumpled, aging body Murdoch dredged up the toughness that helped him create News Corp. The scandal brewed, he said, because "a lot of people had an agenda, [to stop him acquiring the 61 percent of BSkyB he doesn't own]. We got caught with dirty hands and they built hysteria around it."
(Read More: Murdoch drops BSkyB bid)
A little over two hours into the show came a moment of unguarded emotional power. The elder Murdoch launched into the story of how his father — a great journalist but not a rich man — had bought a paper toward the end of his life and passed it on to Rupert. "This is a family business," the old man said, placing his arm on James', "I would like to leave it to my sons ... and daughters ... if they want to come into it." If he was capable of tears he would have shed them.
And then, just like Shakespeare, came the bit of low comedy: A fool who had managed to get into the public gallery walked up to Murdoch and tried to hit him with a shaving cream pie. He paid. Murdoch's wife, Wendy Deng, leapt up from her seat and managed to give him a good clout around the ears.
(Read More: Comedian charged after hacking inquiry pie hurling)
But it was Murdoch's statement about his business with 53,000 employees being a "family business" and wanting to leave it to his children that hinted at why he was willing to undergo this interrogation.
This was about proving to investors in New York that he still has what it takes to be CEO of a $32 billion a year company and the his son James is the man to take over after him. News Corp stock had slumped 17 percent in value since the scandal erupted on July 4.
Today's performance may have stopped the rot.
The stock regained some value as investors in America watched the show. But their enthusiasm probably has less to do with the older man than his son. James Murdoch's cold, focused and unflappable performance may well keep him in the frame to succeed his father. But Rupert, who looked from time to time like King Lear wandering on the heath during the storm, will be hearing calls for him to step down as CEO very loudly. On the basis of today's show his time is over.
Of course, there is a reality outside the show.
Both Murdochs put down a lot of markers of ignorance concerning what happened at The News of the World. If the police or judicial inquiry turns up facts that contradict those protestations of "we never knew" then all bets are off.