|Rupert Murdoch has been accused of using his media empire to further his right-wing political goals [GALLO/GETTY]
When the last issue of News of the World newspaper went to press on Sunday, media analysts were left to wonder if the demise of Britain's most popular tabloid marks the beginning of the end for its billionaire owner or just a bump in the road to full spectrum global media dominance.
Known for reporting lurid details of sex scandals faced by footballers and politicians, the 168-year-old paper stopped the presses over a phone hacking scandal, drawing ire from the police and political elites who once sought favour from its owner, Rupert Murdoch CEO of News Corporation, one of the world's largest news conglomerates.
"In global reach, there are no comparable figures to Murdoch," said Ivor Gaber, a professor of Political Journalism at City University London. "He has a reach in US, UK, Australia and even China. He is a press baron like none other in the world. In terms of his domination of the media in the UK, there is no comparison," Gaber told Al Jazeera.
In the UK alone, Murdoch media properties include several leading newspapers including establishment paper The Times and The Sunday Times, The Sun, a tabloid, along with a major stake in Sky News, a TV station.
David Cameron, the British prime minister, was close with the mogul. Andy Coulson who was recently arrested in connection with phone hacking allegations, was Cameron's former spokesman, and the editor of News of the World in 2007.
"The truth is, we have all been in this together -- the press, politicians and leaders of all parties -- and yes, that includes me," Cameron told reporters on Friday. He promised that "the music has stopped" on cozy relationships between the country’s media and the political elite, slamming "some illegal and utterly unacceptable practices at the News of the World and possibly elsewhere".
The "practices" include allegations that reporters hacked into cellphone message systems belonging to families of UK soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and the voice mail box of a murdered teenaged girl, possibly erasing messages and compromising criminal investigations.
There are also allegations that staff from the News of the World bribed police officers so they could continue with illegal activities in pursuit of readers. The UK government has promised a commission of inquiry into activities at the paper.
|News of the World had been the UK's most popular paper[GALLO/GETTY]
"This is the biggest media story I can remember in 30 years of journalism," said Marie Kinsey, a journalism lecturer at the University of Sheffield. "The phone hacking has shocked a lot of people; it is not common practice."
Murdoch, an Australian-born conservative who used his papers as cheerleading vehicles for the invasion of Iraq, "has been allowed to get dominant influence [in UK politics] and there is no doubt he has used his newspapers to get political leverage," said Richard Tait, director of the centre for journalism at Cardiff University.
In 1989, Murdoch told an audience in the UK: "Much of what passes for quality on British television is no more than a reflection of the values of the narrow elite which controls it."
The problem of media concentration, and politically biased news, is by no means unique to the UK. Among its media holdings, News Corporation - with a market capitalisation of around $46bn - owns some 175 newspapers, Fox TV station, 20th Century Fox films in the US, Harper Collins publishing and television interests in China, Italy, Australia and beyond.
But unlike profitable TV stations or movie production companies, several of Murdoch's papers lost money. The media baron spent $5.6bn to buy Dow Jones, publisher of the Wall Street Journal, in 2007 just before the newspaper industry went into economic free-fall. After paying a roughly 65 per cent premium for the prized publishing brand, News Corp wrote down about half the value of the deal in 2009.
News Corp doesn't have the same information dominance in the US media market that it maintains in the UK. Yet Fox News, owned by Murdoch's firm, has spurred the rise of the Republican right, supporting first George W Bush's war in Iraq and now the conservative Tea Party movement.
"Fox news couldn't exist in the UK broadcast media, because television output is regulated by legislation," Kinsey told Al Jazeera, adding that UK newspapers don’t face similar forms of regulation. "By law, a broadcaster has to be fair and that isn’t the case in the US, where a politically slanted channel can broadcast."
Legislation aside, the business deals underpinning Fox's brand often seem at odds with Murdoch's political slant. Like many of his media interests, the tycoon personally supports Western military interventions, Israel's occupation of Palestine and free-market economic doctrine. Kingdom Holding Company, a firm controlled by Prince Alwaleed bin Talal al-Saud from Saudi Arabia's ruling dynasty, is the second biggest shareholder in News Corp, behind Murdoch’s family.
The two biggest shareholders in the media empire often have contrasting views, on politics and international relations, particularly on questions over Islam, Iraq and Israel.
"Murdoch is fundamentally a businessman, but he can't stop from being involved in politics," Gaber said. "He has allowed his politics to influence his business. He is certainly no left-winger; he runs the Sunday Times because he likes the influence the paper gives him."
|Rupert Murdoch is considered one of the world's most powerful media owners [EPA]
The decision to close the UK's most popular paper with a weekly circulation of 2.67 million is likely linked to Murdoch's more lucrative TV interests.
As newspaper circulations decline around the western world, facing competition from internet media and other problems, TV stations have become more profitable and politically important. Prior to the scandal, Murdoch’s company had launched a $14bn bid for the remaining 61 per cent of pay-TV operator BSkyB that News Corp does not already own.
In order to take complete control of the station, News Corp's directors need to prove to regulators that they are "fit and proper" persons to run the network.
"There is no possibility any government could approach the public to say 'Mr Murdoch should own more TV stations and newspapers," Tait told Al Jazeera, in reference to alleged criminality affecting dead soldiers and murdered women. "It is just not going to happen." The government has received more than 135,000 public complaints against the BSkyB deal.
Journalists pay the price
Many of the 200 journalists who will lose their jobs on less than a week's notice had no part in the alleged phone hacking scandal. But Rebekah Brookes, chief executive of News International, who was responsible for News of the World when the alleged illegal acts took place, has not been given a pink slip, perhaps due to her personal closeness with Murdoch.
"The tragedy, in some ways, is that 200 journalists at News of the World, who had nothing to do with these alleged practices, have lost their jobs," Kinsey said.
The scandal has become a major story in the UK, linking politicians, media barons and the police in a shady web of phone hacking, cronyism and information control. The future is uncertain for one of the world's biggest news conglomerates and its larger than life owner.
Critics of Murdoch, and elite ownership of the press in general, allege that bosses tell journalists what to write and politicians how to act, if they want favorable coverage. That view isn’t quite accurate, Gaber said. "He doesn't need to be a conspirator, he isn't on the phone telling his editors what to do; they know what to do. He didn’t need to tell Tony Blair or David Cameron what to do. They knew he was against [the UK] using the Euro currency. They knew he was in favour of Israel and the Iraq war."
It is impossible, and unreasonable, to directly link the execution of these policies to Murdoch himself. Perhaps he was just one voice, helping to create international policy. Or maybe he is a man who just knows how to pick a winner.
Even so, like News Corp's stock price which dropped more than four per cent on Friday, Murdoch's star seems to be falling, fast.
You can follow Chris Arsenault on twitter @AJEchris
Source: Al Jazeera