Rupert Murdoch said under oath at the U.K.'s Leveson Inquiry that he had never asked a British prime minister for anything. It may even be the truth. Every British prime minister for the past 30 years has known, without being asked directly, exactly what Murdoch wanted -- and sought to provide it for him in the least self-incriminating manner possible.
It may also be true, as the current premier, David Cameron, insists, that there was no "grand bargain" between himself and the Murdoch family to promote their business interests in return for favorable coverage in their media. There was nothing "grand" about it. It was a low, Faustian bargain, in which senior politicians, from at least as far back as Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, sought Murdoch's backing for their policies.
The reasons are obvious enough. Murdoch's newspapers, most particularly his mass-market tabloid The Sun, have wielded enormous influence with large swaths of the British public.
That influence had been diminishing in recent years. The decline started well before the recent hacking scandals that forced Murdoch to close the muckraking News of the World. And it certainly came before the May 1 ruling by the parliamentary committee scrutinizing the News of the World's misdeeds that Murdoch was "not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company."
However, it is only since the scandal began destroying the Murdochs' British empire that public figures' careers have been on the line. Once-chummy political mates have been doing their best to distance themselves from the Murdoch family as fast as they can.
Back in 1992, when John Major's wobbly Conservative government won an unexpected additional term in office, The Sun felt able to run the brash headline "It was The Sun wot won it!" -- as if such influence over the electoral process were something to crow about. Murdoch told the Leveson Inquiry, somewhat coarsely, that he had given the editor a "bollocking." The headline, he said, was "tasteless" and untrue. The Sun, he said, did not have such power. Yet there were enough people, both inside the newspaper and in politics, who clearly believed The Sun's readership had been waiting for the word from Murdoch's editorial writers before venturing to form their own opinions.
Now fast-forward 20 years, and the low comedy continues. The hacking scandal has already brought to a screeching halt News Corp.'s once-determined £7.8 billion ($12.7 billion) bid for the 61% of satellite broadcaster British Sky Broadcasting Group plc that it did not already own. The U.K. broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, has begun a probe into whether BSkyB is "fit and proper" to hold a broadcasting license (although all the previous public debate had been over whether a full News Corp. takeover and cross-ownership with its newspapers would have implications either for competition in the sector or for media plurality). Yet at the political level, the issue is once again a matter of how ministers and their aides sought to curry favor with the Murdochs. Cameron admits he was too close to Murdoch retainers -- with whom he dined, socialized and even went horse riding. But he denies there was anything improper about his conversations with James Murdoch, Rupert's son and the then-chairman of BSkyB.
Jeremy Hunt, Cameron's minister for culture, Olympics, media and sport, is now in the firing line, accused, as he was from the start of the process, of pro-Murdoch bias in the handling of the bid for BSkyB. The decision had been taken out of the hands of a previous minister, Vince Cable, who had confessed in what he thought was a private conversation that he wanted to declare war on the Murdochs. This was a breach of his duty of impartiality, when examining the implications on competition grounds. But Hunt was already on record as supporting the bid before he took on the role, and then had to make a show of impartiality. It was a show that the Murdochs have now exposed as a sham, by releasing e-mails revealing further inappropriate contacts with Hunt's underlings.
Maybe this was all Rupert's revenge -- as well as a distraction from the investigations into alleged criminality at the News Corp. tabloids. No one courts the old man now. But who knows what other toxic e-mails still lurk on News Corp. computers; what previously suppressed revelations lie in wait in the notebooks of once-loyal retainers, whom the Murdochs sacrificed for their own survival? Politicians know they make scapegoats of the media at their peril.
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