Sketch: Murdoch family circles the wagons as contrite patriarch Rupert's credibility goes for a little walkabout

SO, this was the ruthless alpha male who has struck fear into prime ministers - a frail octogenarian, hesitant in speech, who struggled to answer the most basic questions about his own company.

As he appeared before MPs, it was difficult to understand quite how this slight and stumbling Australian has managed to wield such influence over our political leaders.

Just like the Wizard of Oz at the end of the Yellow Brick Road, the great media mogul of Aus cut a rather pathetic figure as he failed to offer an adequate explanation for the great scandal that has engulfed his organisation.

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"This is the most humble day of my life," a contrite Rupert Murdoch blurted out. Not only was it his most humble day, it was also the most humiliating.

It was not the distraction of a "foam pie" being flung at him that so reduced to human scale the ageing press baron, but his "wisnae me" defence that showed a powerful man losing his grip. On occasion, the old fire still smouldered. But even his attempts to bang the desk earned him a reprimand from his formidable wife, Wendi Deng.

Under the questioning of Labour MP Tom Watson, Mr Murdoch squirmed as he admitted he knew nothing at the time about payments being made to the police by the News of the World. He "never knew" of the Neville Thurlbeck case, which saw a former News of the World chief reporter face blackmail allegations. Nor was he aware of "hush-money" payments to Gordon Taylor and Max Clifford.

One thing he did know, however, was that he was "shocked, appalled and ashamed" that the phone of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler had been hacked.

After the pugnacious Mr Watson, it was the turn of Labour's Jim Sheridan. Faced with the opportunity to question one of the world's most powerful men about one of the great controversies of modern times, the Paisley and Renfrewshire North MP attempted to take the scandal to Downing Street.

He utilised his forensic interrogation skills to unearth the unenlightening fact that Rupert Murdoch uses the Downing Street "back door" when he goes to see the Prime Minister. Quite why Mr Sheridan wanted to find out which door was used by Mr Murdoch mystified most observers. But those little visits to Number 10 led to a recollection of happier times when the Murdoch family visited the Browns. The wives "struck up a great friendship," Mr Murdoch remembered a little wistfully. Perhaps even the friendship could be resurrected, he suggested. Some hope.

He then tried to curry favour with his inquisitors by mentioning the MPs' expenses scandal - an unusual tactic. It didn't look like the wisest move, until he told them he thought that expenses abuse could be overcome by paying ministers $1 million a year.

As he foundered, it was left to his family to pick up the pieces.Just as it was his wife who went for the foam pie man, it was his son James who tried to fend off the brickbats thrown by the committee. The younger and more vigorous man looked and sounded like the heir apparent. But behind his more convincing show, there was still the impression that Murdoch junior was only marginally better informed than his father.

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He was unaware of the contents of crucial e-mails and was astonished that News International paid the legal fees of private investigator Glen Mulcaire.

Meanwhile, the former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks - apparently treated much like a daughter by Mr Murdoch - described to the MPs the appalling press intrusion that had forced her to deny that she had been horse riding with David Cameron. The irony appeared completely lost on the "flame haired temptress".

With his family around him, it was left to Murdoch senior to reminisce about his own dad. "I was brought up by a father, who was not rich, but he was a great journalist," he said. "Just before he died he bought me a small paper, specifically saying he was giving me the chance to do good."

The tycoon must wonder where it all went wrong.

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