The ramifications of the phone hacking scandal at News Corp.’s British tabloid the News of the World will continue to play out for months, and its effects on the media biz may not become apparent for years.
But one of the immediate consequences is that the toxic and often hidden relationships between Rupert Murdoch, the world’s most powerful media mogul, his representatives, the U.K.’s top politicians and senior police officers have finally been prised apart.
For decades, pols have been supplicants at the court of King Rupert, who controls just under 40% of the newspaper market as well as Blighty’s biggest commercial TV broadcaster, pay box BSkyB.
“It is an unwritten law of the (British) constitution that you stay in with Murdoch — you don’t do anything to upset him. That’s been the case for the 40 years” Murdoch has been a newspaper proprietor, says Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, which has pursued the phone-hacking scandal for five years.
Paddy Ashdown, one-time leader of Blighty’s Liberal Democrats, said in a recent Channel 4 documentary, “How Murdoch Ran Britain,” “To Mr. Murdoch, politicians were commodities.”
To understand the power, real and perceived, that Murdoch has been able to wield via his British papers, it is important to note the big differences between the U.K. press and its U.S. counterparts — Blighty’s papers are not politically impartial, they are largely national (rather than regional) and they are widely read.
Just as Murdoch’s Fox News is a cheerleader for the Republican cause, most of Blighty’s papers are right-of-center, favoring the more pro-business Conservative Party over its left-of-center Labour rival.
(In contrast, BSkyB’s Sky News is regulated by strict U.K. impartiality rules and cannot support any political party.)
The papers maintain a strong grip on the national consciousness, giving them the kind of political clout that overperforms their circulation figures.
Newspapers like Murdoch’s mass-market tabloids the Sun and the now shuttered News of the World, plus his more sober broadsheets, the London Times and Sunday Times, largely set the news agenda followed by all other news outlets, including even the mighty BBC.
The tabloids have no scruples in exposing in lurid detail the peccadilloes of politicians, another reason why for so long so many British pols have been happy to dance to the Murdoch beat. Ashdown was dubbed “Paddy Pantsdown” by the Sun when news of an affair leaked.
Surprisingly, the Murdoch papers switched their allegiance to Labour in 1995.
This followed a schmooze fest driven by the Labour Party’s tabloid-trained spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, who won Rupe’s support for candidate Tony Blair after the latter flew to Australia, all expenses paid, to address a News Corp. summit.
Campbell recalled: “Were we trying to persuade the Sun to dump the Tories (aka the Conservatives) and come over to us? Yes we were.”
Within days of Blair’s return to London, the Sun was gushing about the Labour leader’s vision for Britain. Two years later, Labour won the general election in a landslide, and Blair became prime minister, ousting the Conservatives after 18 years in power.
Blair’s closeness to Murdoch was to become a touchstone of his time in office.
Media heavy hitters like the BBC’s former director-general Greg Dyke believe that media legislation passed in 2003 allowing non-European Union companies to own a U.K. terrestrial web were passed quite deliberately to help Murdoch grow his British assets; in 2006, News Corp. acquired a stake in leading commercial web ITV.
While no objective analysis suggests that the backing of a single newspaper can determine an election result, Stewart Purvis, ex-head of news firm ITN, now professor of TV journalism at London’s City U., says: “British politicians think Rupert Murdoch has the power to make parties electable and to swing elections.”
Present prime minister David Cameron’s links to the Murdochs and News Corp. have been just as close. He is friends with former News Intl. CEO Rebekah Brooks, who resigned over the scandal. She was arrested and questioned about the hacking allegations July 17.
In January, Cameron’s spin doctor, ex-News of the World editor Andy Coulson, resigned due to his connection to the hacking scandal. He was arrested and questioned July 8.
It recently emerged that Cameron has met News Intl. execs 26 times since becoming prime minister in May, 2010.
Many of these meetings occurred during the period of negotiations between the government, its media regulators and News Corp. over the planned $12 billion takeover of BSkyB, sparking more concerns about Cameron’s connection.
In recent weeks, embarrassing links between the Metropolitan Police and former News of the World deputy editor Neil Wallis, hired as a PR adviser to the police, have become public knowledge.
That, and allegations that police did not probe the hacking allegations thoroughly when they first arose in 2006, prompted the resignations of Met Commissioner Paul Stephenson, the country’s top-ranking policeman, and Assistant Commissioner John Yates.
Wallis is under investigation for alleged phone hacking and bribing the police.
“British politicians fear that Murdoch’s tabloid papers and their contacts in the police may at some point have something on them and so could inflict a lot of damage,” Purvis says.
Finally, Murdoch’s off-hand admission to the parliamentary committee probing the scandal that he usually entered 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s residence, via the back door to visit former premiers Margaret Thatcher, Blair, Brown and now Cameron, confirmed News Corp.’s poisonous hold over the establishment.
“Murdoch had more power than anyone realized and, until now, no-one was prepared to admit to,” Purvis says.