Murdoch to be quizzed on his UK political sway

April 22, 2012 - 7:45 AM
Britain Phone Hacking

FILE - In this Oct. 14, 2011 file photo, News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch delivers a keynote address at the National Summit on Education Reform in San Francisco. Rupert Murdoch's appearance before Lord Justice Brian Leveson Monday April 23, 2012 is expected to focus on the network of personal and professional ties that bound his newspaper and television operations to some of the most senior politicians in the land. For years, the cantankerous Australian media mogul was considered among the most important power brokers in British politics. Now, his business empire under investigation and his influence shriveled by scandal, Rupert Murdoch has returned to the U.K. to face questions about his company's ties to Britain's most senior politicians. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

LONDON (AP) — He was long considered one of the most important power brokers in British politics. Now, with his influence shriveled by Britain's phone hacking scandal, media mogul Rupert Murdoch is returning to the U.K. to face questions about his ties to the country's most senior politicians.

It could be an uncomfortable few days for Britain's ruling class.

Murdoch is "not somebody you'd like to get into a battle with," said Steve Fielding, the director of the Center for British Politics at the University Nottingham. "I don't think he thinks that he has very much to lose."

Rupert Murdoch's appearance before Lord Justice Brian Leveson's inquiry this week is expected to focus on the network of personal and professional ties that have bound his newspaper and television operations to some of the most senior politicians in the United Kingdom.

Those ties have frequently come under criticism, with many observers saying British politicians were scared of crossing Murdoch because of his company's domination of the British media landscape.

Murdoch's papers account for a third of the national daily newspaper market and more than 40 percent of the national Sunday market. The top-selling The Sun tabloid is particularly influential and famously claimed credit for swinging the 1992 election in the Conservative Party's favor. Murdoch's sway extends to TV, where his Sky News channel was key in prompting Britain's first-ever U.S.-style prime ministerial debates.

The Australian's relationship with British leaders blossomed in the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher's government rubber-stamped Murdoch's bid for The Times of London following a secret meeting at the prime minister's country retreat.

It strengthened in the 1990s and 2000s, when Murdoch was assiduously courted by Prime Minister Tony Blair. Current Prime Minister David Cameron, meanwhile, drafted former Murdoch lieutenant Andy Coulson to be his chief media aide.

So frequently did Murdoch meet with British prime ministers that he joked last year, "I wish they would leave me alone."

Murdoch protege Rebekah Brooks has also spent time with Britain's most powerful people. By her own estimation, Brooks saw Tony Blair more than 60 times in the decade he spent in office and she was friendly enough with the wife of Blair's successor, Gordon Brown, to be invited to a slumber party at the prime minister's official residence in 2008.

The Murdoch empire's British connections had a strikingly personal tone. Blair became the godfather of Murdoch's second-youngest child. Cameron, whose Oxfordshire home is practically next door to Brooks and her husband Charlie, used to regularly ride the couple's horses.

But those intimate ties have frayed and snapped since revelations last year that journalists at Murdoch's News of the World tabloid routinely intercepted voice mail messages of those in the public eye. The scandal quickly spread beyond the News of the World to cover an array of other questionable activities by British journalists, as well as police and public officials.

The scandal has badly dented Murdoch's influence, forcing the closure of the News of the World and scuppering his bid for full control of satellite broadcaster BSkyB. So far has Murdoch's star fallen that some commentators spoke of a "British Spring" in reference to the toppling of autocratic rulers in the Arab world.

Coulson and Brooks both resigned before being arrested as two of the scandal's leading suspects, and Rupert Murdoch and his media executive son James have swapped discreet visits to No. 10 Downing Street with confrontational appearances before skeptical lawmakers in Parliament.

Once eager to secure Rupert Murdoch's blessing, Cameron has since ordered the official inquiry which is calling him and his son in for at least two full days of testimony starting Tuesday.

Although James Murdoch has largely kept his cool, his father has already begun to rattle the cages — taking to Twitter to blast the politicians who've turned their backs on him.

In March, Murdoch gleefully trumpeted his Sunday Times newspaper's expose of a Conservative Party fundraiser purporting to sell access to the prime minister, saying: "What was Cameron thinking? No-one, rightly or wrongly, will believe his story."

Later, in a transparent attack on Cameron's Tories, he attacked the "old toffs and right wingers who still want last century's status quo."

Media analyst Steven Hewlett said Murdoch had plenty of incentive to embarrass Cameron, or perhaps even Britain's entire ruling class.

"There's a feisty, slightly annoyed side to Rupert," Hewlett said. With the inquiry likely to focus on whether Murdoch used his power and access to lobby for regulatory favors, Murdoch could turn the question on its head by detailing how politicians tried to lobby him for favorable coverage.

"Rupert will say: 'It takes two to tango,'" Hewlett predicted.

Politicians in the United States and Australia — where Murdoch also wields considerable influence — may find the testimony compelling.

Media pundit Paul Connew said that next week would provide "fascinating theater" and attract "massive international media coverage."

Observers may also want to take note of the action taking place behind the scenes.

Police and prosecutors are considering the first batch of charges against those involved in the scandal, which may come in the second half of May, according to two people briefed on their progress.

And lawmakers on Parliament's media committee are putting the final touches on their report on the phone hacking scandal. The document is expected either to blast James Murdoch for failing to get a grip on the scandal or excoriate his lieutenants for keeping the 39-year-old executive in the dark.

Lawmaker Paul Farrelly has said that the report — which has been delayed for months — is tentatively due out May 1.