Tags: hacking | scandal | murdoch

Newspaper Scandal Eases Murdoch Grip on UK Politics

Thursday, 07 Jul 2011 05:10 PM

 

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The demise of Britain's biggest-selling newspaper is likely to weaken media mogul Rupert Murdoch's grip on British politics, at least in the short-term, after a phone hacking scandal that has tarnished Prime Minister David Cameron.

Allegations that the News of the World Sunday newspaper, owned by Rupert Murdoch's News International , hacked into phones of people including a murdered schoolgirl and dead soldiers have rocked British politics and disgusted the public.

The allegations triggered the dramatic announcement on Thursday of the closure of the 168-year-old paper, after a rare emergency session of parliament on the scandal on Wednesday and Internet campaigns to boycott the publication. Many firms had already pulled their advertising.

Conservative Cameron and former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair heavily courted Murdoch, whose support is seen as crucial in marshalling votes -- Blair was reported to have flown to Australia to seek his blessing ahead of an election.

"Politicians are falling over themselves to distance themselves from Murdoch's empire," said Jonathan Tonge, professor of politics at the University of Liverpool.

"The long term legacy of this that no politician will ever want to be seen as being overly close to newspaper editors or media conglomerates. It's simply too dangerous," he added.

As well as the News of the World, Murdoch's other titles include the hugely influential Sun tabloid newspaper, the Times broadsheet and broadcaster Sky.

Tonge said that even with falling sales, newspapers are calculated to sway some 5 percent of voters in elections.

Cameron, like Blair, is said to have a cosy relationship with Australian-born American Murdoch and the head of his British newspaper arm Rebekah Brooks.

The Sun threw its weight behind Cameron in 2009 during the closing months of Labour rule under Gordon Brown.

"In the short-term, politicians of all stripes who have been very keen to have Murdoch-owned media on board might want to put some distance between themselves and his empire," said Andrew Russell, senior politics lecturer at Manchester University.

In the long term, however, analysts say that Murdoch's media empire is too large and too powerful for ambitious politicians to ignore, and most media commentators expect a replacement for the News of the World to emerge soon.

"Murdoch is a difficult man to resist when he controls so much of the media .... Clearly there will be more wariness, but I wouldn't write a story saying this is the end of Murdoch's political influence, yet," said Ivor Gaber, professor of political journalism at City University.

Still, for now at least, association with his empire is toxic, with politicians of all parties lining up to condemn the News of the World and Murdoch's political influence.

British politicians have said in the past they feared criticising Murdoch papers in case they were targeted by them.

Jim Sheridan, an opposition Labour politician on parliament's culture, media and sports committee, said News International has too much influence over politics.

"Parties should do what's best for the country and not just to appease newspaper editors. When we see prime ministers or potential prime ministers travelling half way round the world to court people like Rupert Murdoch, that seriously damages our democracy," he told Reuters.

CAMERON DAMAGED

The scandal has come at a bad time for Cameron, who hired a former News of the World editor as his communications chief, and whose government is in the final stages of deciding whether to approve Murdoch's bid for pay-TV operator BSkyB .

Andy Coulson resigned his post on Cameron's staff in January over phone hacking allegations, which had rumbled for some months before escalating this week on new allegations that murder and bombing victims' phones had been hacked.

At the time of his resignation, Cameron's choice of Coulson had led many to question the prime minister's judgment, doubts that have surfaced again with the latest hacking allegations.

"The series of disgusting revelations concerning (Cameron's) friends and associates from Rupert Murdoch's News International has permanently and irrevocably damaged his reputation," wrote Peter Oborne of the usually pro-Conservative Daily Telegraph newspaper.

"He should never have employed Andy Coulson (or) cultivated Rupert Murdoch. And worst mistake of all, he should never allowed himself to become a close friend of Rebekah Brooks," Oborne continued.

Making matters worse for Cameron is the impending decision on whether to allow Murdoch to buy the 61 percent of BSkyB he does not already own. Cameron has said the decision is not his to make, and is part of a "quasi judicial" review undertaken by the department of Culture, Media and Sport.

Analysts believe the chances of the deal being derailed are slim, although Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt could delay a ruling while officials sift through more than 100,000 responses to a consultation on the deal.

"Even if it is delayed, if public opinion is anything like what we think it is, then anything other than Cameron giving a full rejection to the deal will be seen as an endorsement of Murdoch," said Nottingham University politics professor Steven Fielding. (Additional reporting by Mohammed Abbas; Editing by Jon Boyle)

© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

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