Once wary of criticizing him, British politicians take square aim at the media billionaire weakened by the phone hacking scandal. Tabloid News of the World publishes its final issue Sunday.
By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times
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He’s been one of the most powerful forces in British politics for decades, even though he doesn’t live here and can’t vote in an election. He’s been an honored guest at 10 Downing St., as well as one of the most feared.
But it’s an upside-down world that will greet media kingpin Rupert Murdoch when he arrives in London for an expected visit Sunday as he personally takes on the battle to keep an explosive phone-hacking scandal at one of his tabloids from sinking the rest of his business interests.
Almost overnight, open season has been declared on Murdoch, with politicians once too afraid to criticize him now lining up to rail against the Australian-born billionaire and his vast media holdings. The effect has been of a dam bursting in a country whose people are famed for their reticence.
“We have let one man have far too great a sway over our national life,” Chris Bryant, a member of the Labor Party, declared in Parliament.
“No other country would allow one man to garner four national newspapers, the second-largest broadcaster, a monopoly on sports rights and first-view movies,” Bryant told his fellow lawmakers last week. “America, the home of the aggressive entrepreneur, doesn’t allow it. We shouldn’t.”
The stunning reversal of fortune for Murdoch, 80, comes amid a criminal probe into the News of the World, a weekly tabloid that has been accused of hacking into the cellphones of possibly thousands of people in its single-minded pursuit of sensational stories.
Britons who shrugged when the targets were identified as movie stars and athletes arose in mass indignation last week over allegations that the tabloid also accessed voicemails left for a kidnapped 13-year-old girl who was later found slain. The relatives of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq may also have had their phones hacked.
To limit the damage, News International, the British arm of Murdoch’s giant News Corp., abruptly decided to shut down the News of the World, a 168-year-old publication that was to put out its last issue Sunday. (Its final front-page message: “THANK YOU & GOODBYE.”)
But the tide has turned against Murdoch with such swiftness and ferocity that it will be difficult, if not impossible, for him to restore his reputation and the extraordinary political access he has hitherto enjoyed in Britain, analysts say.
Although plenty of politicians have grumbled privately about Murdoch and his influence in the past, the newfound anger of their constituents has now given them the political cover to raise their voices openly against a media mogul whom they used to avoid alienating for fear of finding their peccadilloes splashed across the front pages of his tabloids.
“It’s definitely a seismic moment,” said Julia Hobsbawm, head of Editorial Intelligence, a media analysis firm. “Arguably it’s the moment when the balance of power held by the mythology of Rupert Murdoch will have tipped.”
In the House of Commons, a parade of lawmakers took turns at the microphone to thunder their disapproval of Murdoch, and the way they feel he has debased public life here through media properties that purvey sex scandals and celebrity tittle-tattle, and stoke fear of violent crime.
But there were moments of self-criticism as well, from members of Parliament who acknowledged having been too craven to speak out against Murdoch and against abuses at his newspapers. Even David Cameron, the prime minister, now ruefully admits to being hesitant to take Murdoch on.
Bryant, the Labor MP, said in a telephone interview that Murdoch had successfully cowed lawmakers to the benefit of his business empire.
“He’s used his newspapers to make people frightened of attacking his media interests, and he has favored some people in all sorts of different ways, in particular political parties, and that has kept his financial interests very secure,” Bryant said.
“I’m not exempting anybody. I’m not exempting myself, to be honest,” he said. “None of us has shot the legs off from under him.”
Murdoch’s latest commercial gambit has been to take control of BSkyB, Britain’s biggest satellite broadcaster, a bid that is now sure to be delayed because of the phone-hacking scandal. The debacle has frightened investors of both BSkyB and News Corp., which lost billions of dollars on the stock market by the end of last week. (In the U.S., News Corp. owns Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, among other properties.)
Three men have already been arrested here in Britain in connection with the hacking allegations, including a former News of the World editor who until earlier this year was Cameron’s chief public relations aide.
On Saturday, the Guardian newspaper, which has led the reporting on the scandal, said Scotland Yard was investigating evidence that a News International executive may have deleted millions of internal e-mails to obstruct the phone-hacking probe. The company denies the allegation.
Opposition politicians pressed Cameron on Saturday to name a judge as quickly as possible to lead one of two promised official inquiries into the mess.
Only a year into his premiership, the scandal is turning into a major embarrassment for Cameron, whose cultivation of Murdoch has been especially assiduous. Besides his former aide who was arrested, Cameron is also friends with Rebekah Brooks, the embattled head of News International, who many in Britain think should resign or be fired.
Murdoch was one of the first people invited to see Cameron within hours of his winning last year’s election. No one is expecting a meeting between the two men this time.
Such remarkable access to the prime minister was not confined to Cameron’s premiership or his Conservative Party. The previous Labor government also rolled out the red carpet for Murdoch. In 1995, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, then the opposition leader, flew all the way to Australia to meet Murdoch and persuade him to switch his support to Labor.
“It remains a fact that every government elected for 25 years or more has enjoyed Murdoch’s backing,” said Brian Cathcart, a journalism professor at Kingston University in London. “There are two ways of looking at that…. One is that it helps a party get elected if it has Murdoch’s papers on its side; on the other hand, he’s very adept at changing sides when it’s necessary.”
The News of the World, which boasts of being the bestselling newspaper in the English-speaking world, was Murdoch’s first newspaper purchase in Britain, back in 1969. He eventually added the Times of London, one of the country’s most respected titles, and the Sun, a racy daily tabloid, to his stable — purchases that gave him unparalleled political influence.
“This man was the uncrowned king of our country,” said Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a columnist for the Independent newspaper.