IT was the performance of a lifetime.

A contrite, genial old man, 60 years in charge of the family business, admits that he was the victim of a cover-up by devious lawyers and underlings. They took advantage of his trusting nature to pursue their law-breaking ways and corrupt his newspapers. He's sorry; God damn it he's sorry. And if he were only 40 years younger, they'd be sorry too.

Whether or not you buy Rupert Murdoch's plea of "I didnae ken", one thing is clear. He could never have exercised his immense power and influence had it not been for the politicians who danced to his tune. Watching Murdoch's performance reminded me a little of The Godfather. In the gangster genre, the most powerful mafiosi are often elderly, amiable and rather ineffectual-looking figures in bad clothes, who look like they should be living in old people's homes, and sometimes are. But that belies their power.

No, I'm not saying that Rupert Murdoch is a member of the Mafia, or behaves like one, or that he has done anything improper. But he is, nevertheless, a great study in the charisma of power. When you possess this kind of aura you don't need to throw your weight about. You don't need to look threatening, or bark or growl. In fact, you hardly have to do anything at all, because everyone does your bidding, practically before you have even thought about it yourself. So, I'm sure Murdoch told nothing but the truth when he said, "I've never asked a prime minister for anything in my life". At this level, you don't have to ask.

Everyone in public life knew that Murcoch wanted to consolidate his cross-media monopoly by taking a controlling interest in the satellite broadcaster, BSkyB. This would give him immense reach, through Sky television, to promote his newspapers and online hybrids. It would be the biggest concentration of media ownership anywhere in the world, eclipsing even Silvio Berlusconi's Italy. Yes, Murdoch is a businessman first of all, and making money is the primary aim – but power and influence are key parts of the business plan. And that makes politicians even more desperate to win his favour.

So, when Alex Salmond pleads that his lobbying on behalf of Rupert Murdoch's bid for BSkyB, was all about "Scottish jobs", he was guilty either of astonishing naivety, or breathtaking cynicism. Of course, it wasn't about jobs, at least not principally. Effectively, it was about helping Murdoch to gain ever greater power over British public life, and Salmond knew this perfectly well.

His own SNP MPs in Westminster have been vehemently opposed to the BSkyB bid on precisely these grounds. Yet, behind the scenes, here was their leader doing Rupert's bidding, offering to push the Murdoch line to the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt (although the crucial phone call never took place).

No deal was struck about The Sun supporting the SNP at the last election – again, at this level you don't actually do deals. It's all about tacit understandings. Murdoch saw Salmond's flaw the moment he met him: his vanity. By bigging him up in tweets and by teasing him with the odd positive article in The Sun, he played the First Minister for a fool – as Labour's Scottish leader, Johann Lamont, put it best at First Minister's Questions. He was suckered into compromising himself. Lured into the Murdoch web and then wrapped in incriminating emails.

I don't actually believe that Murdoch had it in for Salmond or wanted to destroy his integrity. It's not entirely clear why he wanted the FM's backing. Salmond's support might even have been counterproductive, given that UK ministers regard him as a devious and unreliable separatist. Murdoch was probably just playing with him, like he plays with politicians in Westminster. Enjoying the dance, wondering just how far they will go to abase themselves.

They've all been suckered by Rupert: Tony Blair, a real-life godfather to Murdoch's offspring. Gordon Brown – how brilliant of Murdoch to spread that anecdote about the "unbalanced" former PM declaring "war" on News Corp. David Cameron, in a reckless attempt to buy a hotline to the heart of The Sun, even hired as his press secretary Andy Coulson, one of Murdoch's editors, who had lost his job over the phone-hacking scandal. I'm sure Murdoch didn't try to bully Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt into backing his bid for BSkyB or letting his special adviser leak market-sensitive information to a News Corp lobbyist. The minister was only too eager to please Murdoch, even saying on his website that he was a "cheerleader" for News Corporation.

Murdoch made no threats to the Government, quite the reverse – he killed them with kindness. See how the Prime Minister, David Cameron, entrapped himself by having that Christmas dinner with the Murdoch clan – plus court jester Jeremy Clarkson – at The Sun editor Rebekah Brooks's house in Chipping Norton only months after he had entered Downing Street. Murdoch didn't order Brooks to set up this particular honeytrap any more than he ordered her to attend the slumber party at Chequers organised by the wife of the former Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. It's just that they're all so anxious to please. As one of Murdoch's editors, Piers Morgan, put it, you spend a good part of your waking life asking yourself, "what would Rupert think of this?" ... and if you don't read his mind accurately, you don't thrive – simple as that. No, there are no concrete galoshes. No-one sleeps with the fishes, except metaphorically.

The way Murdoch eviscerated his enemies last week was masterful. Releasing that string of emails showing the sycophancy and partiality of the Culture Secretary was immensely damaging to the Cameron government, and puts the Prime Minister firmly in the frame. Hunt has blamed his special adviser, Adam Smith, who has walked the plank to protect his boss. But it is, of course, inconceivable that Smith could have been acting alone – special advisers just don't. The entire Government has been unbalanced by Murdoch's testimony, and remains fearful of what comes next.

But Rupert has got clean away. There was nothing seriously incriminating in his testimony under oath, nothing to attract the attention of the Metropolitan Police, who are anyway also in the dock, accused of taking The Sun's money and underplaying the phone-hacking affair. Many people thought – hoped – that this appearance at Leveson would bury Rupert Murdoch. They underestimated him. He has used the inquiry to bury his enemies instead.