Rupert Murdoch's two-day, ten-and-a-half hour appearance before the Leveson Inquiry on Wednesday and Thursday has the feeling of a potentially landmark occasion.
Murdoch will surely be questioned about phone hacking, as he was during his appearance before Parliament last July. Though the Leveson hearings have been much more in-depth, he is not likely to depart substantially from what he said then — that he was completely in the dark about the operation.
But what could truly set the hearings apart is the possibility that Murdoch will be drawn out about the nearly hypnotic sway he has held over British cultural and political life for over 40 years.
He will also be under oath.
It's true that the inquiry, which was launched to examine the ethics and practices of the British press, has had a very broad scope. It has drawn editors of many different newspapers and media outlets, as well as police and other government officials, into its net.
But, at its heart, Leveson has really been about Murdoch — his ruthlessness, his commercial brilliance, his utter lack of shame in pursuing the things he wants — and the reverberations of his decision to purchase the News of the World in 1968. (After all, the inquiry was only set up because of the phone hacking scandal at Murdoch's papers.) Since then, the country has been irrevocably shaped by his sensibilities and political instincts. Most importantly, it has been shaped by the extent of his relationships with politicians, who have tripped over themselves to please him.
The details of those relationships —especially during and after the years when Margaret Thatcher came to power — have been rehashed many times over. As Murdoch himself put it to the New Yorker in 2006, speaking about the then-current and future Prime Ministers, "Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, whenever I’m in town they say, ‘Can’t you come over for a cup of tea?’" (They also, in Blair's case, make you their child's godfather.)
What does the man who inspired such groveling have to say for that legacy, especially now that he finds himself weaker than he has ever been? How will he respond to charges that he used the popularity of his newspapers to bully and "monster" his enemies?
The other subject that is likely to take up substantial time is News Corp.'s aborted attempt to secure the whole of satellite company BSkyB. Murdoch's decision to abandon the bid last July was a bitter admission that the phone hacking crisis had left him no other choice but to move on. Had he succeeded, it would have been his biggest deal ever.
The revelations from Tuesday's hearings, which featured Murdoch's son James as the sole witness, will add a large helping of drama to the proceedings. Confidential emails from a News Corp. lobbyist appeared to lay bare the scale of the ties between the company and Jeremy Hunt, the government minister tasked with impartially weighing the company's bid for all of BSkyB. The (non-Murdoch) Daily Telegraph splashed the story with a devastating quote from one of the emails: 'Absolutely Illegal.'
Hunt, who has disputed the claims, is now fighting for his political career. That is as much of a sign of the changed temperature as any; the emails reflect a time when government ministers were eager to be on the same side as the Murdochs.
Tuesday's session focused on James Murdoch's dealings with Hunt, but Rupert's inquisitors will be just as keen to know the extent of his involvement in the bid. Did he help lean on government officials? Did he ever hint to current Prime Minister David Cameron that he could get his coveted endorsement if he agreed to grease the wheels of the bid?
Murdoch's answers, about that and everything else, will be fascinating to hear.
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