July 27 (Bloomberg) -- Rupert Murdoch, feted by leaders who feared the sway his media empire held over British voters, has been put on notice by U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron that “the clock has stopped” on his influence over British politics.
Summoned to Parliament on July 19 to say what he knew about illegal activities at the News of the World, Britain’s best-selling newspaper before it was shut by the scandal, Murdoch said premiers asked him “many times” to visit their 10 Downing Street office in London through the back door.
“He’s not going to have anything like the same influence he’s had in the past,” said Lance Price, who worked for Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair from 1998 to 2001 before leaving and publishing “The Spin Doctor’s Diary.” Lawmakers would take Murdoch’s likely reaction into account when deciding policies, Price said. “No prime minister’s going to treat him in the way he once did.”
Leaders of both Britain’s main parties -- Labour and the Conservatives -- wooed Murdoch, whose News Corp. still publishes The Sun, the biggest selling daily tabloid, and the upmarket Times and Sunday Times. The Sun has backed the winner in every election since 1979, when it urged voters to support Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party.
“We have all got to be open about the fact that both front benches spent a lot of time courting Rupert Murdoch, courting News International,” News Corp.’s U.K. publishing division, and other media, Cameron told the House of Commons last week. “This sort of relationship needs to be changed and put on a more healthy basis. Now we are prepared to admit it, but basically, if you like, the clock has stopped on my watch.”
Blair once flew to Australia to address a meeting of News Corp. executives as he sought to woo Murdoch’s support for Labour in the mid-1990s.
Blair’s communications chief, Alastair Campbell, described in his diaries the moment in the run-up to the 1997 election when The Sun announced it would back Labour instead of John Major’s Conservatives.
Blair “thought it was good news in its own right,” as well as being “good in the effect it would have on the other side’s morale,” Campbell wrote. “On one level, it was ridiculous that it should be seen as a big event, but the reality is that is exactly how it is seen.”
The News of the World, with a reputation for covering sex and scandal, was Murdoch’s first newspaper purchase in Britain in 1969. He added The Sun shortly afterward. The Times and Sunday Times joined the Murdoch stable at the start of the 1980s, bought from Thomson Corp. after a labor dispute had shut the Times for more than a year.
“There is no one person more responsible for the pollution of what was already a fairly polluted press, and the pollution of the British press is an important part of the pollution of British political life,” a leading television playwright, Dennis Potter, said in a BBC television interview shortly before his death in 1994.
“I call my cancer, the main one, the pancreas one, Rupert,” Potter said. “I would shoot the bugger if I could,” he said of Murdoch.
“An organization whose newspapers demanded greater responsibility among the powerless in our society believed it was so powerful that it was beyond that self-same responsibility,” opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband said of News Corp. in a speech last week. “It was one of the great failures of politics that their power went unchallenged for so long.”
During his testimony last week, Murdoch “looked very weak,” said Labour lawmaker Jim Sheridan, who questioned the 80-year-old News Corp. chairman about his relationships with prime ministers. “If it was an act, it was a very good act. He was falling asleep.”
Murdoch told Sheridan he had “never guaranteed anyone the support of my newspapers.” Asked by another lawmaker, Damian Collins, about his “frequent meetings” with premiers, Murdoch replied: “I wish they would leave me alone.”
Murdoch told the committee that he was not responsible for the phone-hacking scandal and that the News of the World made up just 1 percent of a global company. Instead, he blamed “the people that I trusted to run it, and then maybe the people they trusted.”
Cameron said at the end of last week that “News International has got some big issues to deal with and a mess to clear up.”
The widening phone-hacking scandal and its political backlash also forced News Corp. to drop its 7.8 billion-pound ($12.8 billion) bid for the 61 percent of British Sky Broadcasting Group Plc, the country’s biggest pay-television operation, it doesn’t own.
At least 10 people have been arrested, including former News International Chief Executive Officer Rebekah Brooks and ex-News of the World editor Andy Coulson, who was Cameron’s press chief until January of this year.
Data released by the government as it tries to create a clean break show that 41 percent of Cameron’s meetings with senior media figures since coming to power were with News Corp. For Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, the figure was 40 percent.
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Lawmakers should take Murdoch at his word that he’s not interested in influencing British public life, said Chris Bryant, a Labour lawmaker who’s suing News International over the affair.
Murdoch’s son James, News Corp.’s deputy chief operating officer, who also testified that he was unaware of hacking allegations, “is in much more difficulty,” Bryant said in an interview. “All of this is going to rumble on for him.”
Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Nottingham University, said he believes the power of Murdoch’s newspapers was already waning, along with the rest of the printed press, as circulations have fallen.
Blair and his successor, Gordon Brown, “spent so much time courting them because of Labour’s experience in the 80s and early 90s” during an 18-year absence from government, Cowley said in an interview. “They were fighting the last war. But if it got them a few extra votes, why not do it?”
Even so, Sheridan, the Labour panel member, said he’s unconvinced that Murdoch’s influence is gone for ever.
“There’s nothing to demonstrate that he’s not as powerful as he was,” Sheridan said. “The proof will be in the eating. I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet.”
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