THE PHONE hacking scandal that has claimed the jobs of Britain's two most high-profile police officers, caused the closure of one of the country's most famous newspapers, prompted 10 arrests so far and led to calls for the resignation of the prime minister reaches a critical juncture today with a moment of high drama to rival anything that the British media has produced before, either in real life or fiction.
The founder and the appointed heir to the world's most famous media empire will take centre stage in the next act of the hacking saga.
Rupert and James Murdoch will sit before a panel of MPs and face questions that the company over which they preside was involved in phone hacking on an 'industrial scale', made illegal payments to police officers and sought to corrupt the democratic process by 'owning' politicians.
In their answers, for which they have been carefully drilled by a team of lawyers and media trainers, the pair will attempt to rescue a tarnished reputation and distance themselves from serious criminality.
They will do so under intense pressure from their own shareholders, who have seen the value of their stock fall by almost a fifth -- 17.9pc -- since it emerged that the murdered schoolgirl Millie Dowler had been among victims of the company's journalists.
The answers of the Murdochs will also be analysed by a number of investigating bodies, including the media regulator Ofcom which is gathering evidence on whether News Corp is 'fit and proper' to own a broadcasting licence in the UK, and the Serious Fraud Office.
The pair's evidence will be followed by that of Rebekah Brooks, who resigned her post as their chief executive at News International last week, before being arrested on Sunday by police investigating the hacking and illicit payments made to officers.
Yesterday Brooks fought back. Her lawyer, Stephen Parkinson, hinted that his client would take steps to redress damage to her reputation.
Despite arresting her yesterday and conducting an interview process lasting nine hours, (the Metropolitan Police) put no allegations to her and showed her no documents connecting her with any crime
For James Murdoch the appearance before MPs will be a screen test like no other. As he prepared to take his seat in front of the House of Commons Culture, Media & Sport Committee today, he was facing criticism from those who doubt that he possesses the abilities to run the News Corp empire founded by his father.
The pressure on him intensified yesterday with a growing clamour for him to relinquish his role as chairman of BSkyB, the satellite broadcaster which he helped to build into a successful business.
BSkyB's non-executive directors were reported to be unconvinced that Murdoch can cope with the job when he is caught up in the phone hacking affair, and that they would watch his performance today ahead of discussions later this week.
That view was echoed by the satellite broadcaster's first chairman, Andrew Neil, a former editor of the Murdoch-owned ' Sunday Times'. "Non-Murdoch shareholders in BSkyB are indicating James's future as chairman is likely determined by his Commons performance," he said last night.
Yesterday the Lib Dems asked Ofcom to act now on whether News Corp should be allowed to have even the 39pc stake in BSkyB that it possesses.
Don Foster, the party's media spokesman, said James should follow the example of senior police officers and his colleague Rebekah Brooks and resign, even if he was not admitting wrongdoing. "I think his position is untenable," he said.
A poll for ITV News last night showed that two-thirds of the public thought James should quit. (© Independent News Service)