Does Murdoch matter?
I want you to imagine a country in which the foreign-born owner of what was to become the world's biggest selling newspaper was also a government minister.
It's a country in which the then prime minister offered a government job not only to one newspaper tycoon, but to two -- the second said no thanks, so he became the government's "director of propaganda" instead.
It's a country in which a former Cabinet minister stood down as an MP and immediately became the editor of a major broadsheet newspaper.
You get the picture. This was Britain for much of the 20th century. Lord Beaverbrook, owner of the Daily Express, was made minister of propaganda in 1918 and was a senior minister in Winston Churchill's Cabinet during the Second World War. Lord Northcliffe, owner of both The Times and the Daily Mail, was appointed director of propaganda by Lloyd George. Bill Deedes was the Tory MP and Cabinet minister who in 1974 became editor of the Daily Telegraph.
And while we're at it, how about Cecil King, another mighty media mogul, then owner of the Daily Mirror, who in the 1960s became so convinced that the prime minister, Harold Wilson, was a danger to the country that he started discussing with MI5 and Lord Mountbatten, apparently in all seriousness, a plot to overthrow the Wilson government?
All of which bring us, naturally enough, to Rupert Murdoch, and his two riveting days of testimony to the Leveson inquiry. Controlled, just, self-deprecating, sometimes, sardonic, frequently. This was a man whose every answer seemed to carry an implied sub-text: "You know, this really is the most appalling waste of my time ..."
Perhaps you regard all the hoo-ha over Murdoch and Leveson as no more than journalistic navel-gazing and typical media self-regard. While the country slips back into recession and thousands of people worry about losing their jobs, does it really matter if a media tycoon occasionally yelled at his editors, or if successive prime ministers tried to cosy up to him in the hope of a return favour or two?
Given our recent history, as outlined above, is Rupert Murdoch really such an ogre that he deserves the acres of newsprint and hours of air time that have been devoted to him?
You will, I am sure, make up your own mind. But if you believe that ordinary citizens have a right to know how their elected politicians operate -- and if you believe that the media have a duty to keep an eye on how they go about their business of governing the country -- then, yes, what we learned from Mr Murdoch surely does matter.
Mind you, some of what he said -- even though it was all said on oath, as if in a court of law -- has been directly challenged. The News of the World's former legal manager called his evidence yesterday "a shameful lie". Gordon Brown called his account of a telephone conversation between them "wholly wrong".
Lord Justice Leveson will, at some point, have to decide how reliable Mr Murdoch's evidence was. Will he accept the media mogul's repeated insistence that he never, ever asked for a favour from a prime minister? Or will he pay more attention to Mr Murdoch's assertion that the principle of "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine" is simply the way the world works?
So here's one reason why I would argue that all this does matter. We have in place a regulatory system that's meant to ensure that media ownership does not become so concentrated that it acts against the public interest -- and that media owners are "fit and proper persons" to run a media operation.
The News of the World phone-hacking scandal, which is alleged to have involved criminal behaviour "on an industrial scale" (more than 40 arrests so far, although no charges brought as yet), emerged just as the Murdochs were bidding to acquire the whole of the satellite broadcaster BSkyB. That would have given them an even more commanding presence on the UK media scene.
It's now alleged that the man responsible for deciding how the government should handle that bid, the culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, may have been acting more as an advocate for the Murdoch bid than as a judge of it. If true -- and he denies the suggestion categorically -- it would make a mockery of the whole regulatory process.
It may well be true that with the advent of new media technologies -- the internet, and especially social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook -- traditional media owners have a lot less power than they once had. Information spreads these days without any need for a newspaper or a broadcaster.
But we'll always need someone to keep an eye on what governments are doing, and for that to be done honestly, we'll always need a free, diverse media, with no single owner exerting monopoly power.
Last July, when the Murdochs shut down the News of the World ("I panicked," Rupert Murdoch told Leveson yesterday. "But I'm glad I did"), I quoted Thomas Jefferson. Here he is again: "If it were left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."