Rupert Murdoch and the end of fear

The tide has turned against Rupert Murdoch, the world’s most powerful media mogul, who is in London trying to salvage a deal under which his conglomerate News Corp. would merge with the British pay-TV operator BSkyB.

Until now, the political classes in Britain had seemed paralyzed by fear of the man who could control their destiny with a single tabloid headline in the News of the World or The Sun. He is courted by prime ministers of every political stripe, from Tony Blair to the current PM, David Cameron.

In 1998, Blair questioned Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi about broadcasting legislation planned in Italy as Murdoch sought to expand his business empire. Cameron appointed Andy Coulson, the former editor of the News of the World — even then under a cloud for phone hacking of the royal family, which was attributed to a “rogue” reporter — as his communications chief. Coulson is now under arrest and it has emerged that while he was editor, the police were allegedly paid for information.

Amid the universal revulsion caused by the revelations of the past week, British politicians have lost their fear. A murdered schoolgirl, war widows and terrorist victims were among the 4,000 people reported to have been targeted by the News of the World under Coulson and his predecessor, Rebekah Brooks (then Rebekah Wade).

Cameron, whose cozy relationship with Brooks and their Oxfordshire set has received much media scrutiny over the past few days, is coming under increasing pressure to halt Murdoch’s $14 billion takeover of the 61 percent of BSkyB that the mogul doesn’t already own. Opposition politicians are demanding that Murdoch drop his bid.

For once, the media tycoon might have miscalculated. He must have thought that his cynical decision last week to close the News of the World, while keeping Brooks in her job as News International chief executive, would be sufficient to quash the scandal. I was in London last week and saw the outrage and incomprehension that greeted his decision to spare his former editor.

He continues to stand by Brooks, who reports to his son James, “I’m not throwing innocent people under the bus,” Murdoch said.

But now the independent broadcasting regulator Ofcom is to consider whether News Corp. is “fit and proper” to run BSkyB, whose share price is now in freefall. It could be that the British people have decided to throw Murdoch himself under the bus.