Murdoch’s comeuppance will have downsides too
Tories see Murdoch papers as useful counterweight to the left-wing BBC and Guardian
If Rupert Murdoch has been reading the newspapers since he arrived in London on Sunday - or any rate the ones he does not own - he will have seen for himself just how much British political life has changed since he last graced our shores.
The sense of relief across the media and all three parties, if not in Downing Street, that his spell has finally been broken, is palpable. Having cowered before the Murdochs and their side-kicks for so long, many MPs and journalists are openly delighted to see them humbled.
Traditionally, of course, press barons do not do contrition and, judging by his performance on arrival in London, Murdoch is no exception. Asked his priority for the coming week, he pointed to Rebekah Brooks, the much-criticised chief executive of his British operation, and replied "this one".
If that is really how he reads the mood here, it is not surprising that his bid for full control of BSkyB has come so spectacularly unstuck. With more mind-boggling revelations about News International emerging almost by the hour, it is hard to think it will ever be resurrected.
The two big questions now are whether Murdoch will remain at the helm of his empire after what has happened, and whether his son James can still succeed him. He is, after all, 80 and his shareholders and bankers must be wondering whether he and his family can really handle this crisis.
But gratifying though it may be to watch the Murdochs get their comeuppance, their discomfiture could have far-reaching consequences for both politics and the press in this country – not all of them necessarily for the good.
A major worry is greater political control over newspapers. The prime minister has already indicated that he is minded to use what has happened to justify statutory regulation of the press - something we have never had before in this country.
With MPs still smarting over the expenses scandal, it will be crucial that whatever is introduced really is about raising standards, rather than revenge. It was the Guardian which brought the News of the World to book, not Parliament or the police. Investigative journalism may be in the dog house at the moment, but it is still vital.
Another concern is what Murdoch might do with his newspapers if he is thwarted in his ambitions for BSkyB. Last week, the influential Conservative Home blog pointed out that, for all their faults, the Murdoch titles have always been a reliable counterweight to the influence of the left-wing Guardian and BBC. In the interests of balance and plurality, it urged David Cameron to have a care for the future of the centre-right press.
With Labour taking the lead against him, the News International titles are unlikely to swing behind Ed Miliband anytime soon. But the Sun and the Times remain forces to be reckoned with. A disgruntled Murdoch could yet cause a lot of trouble if he wants to.
Alternatively, he might simply decide to call it a day in this country. Murdoch is known as a newspaper man, but newspapers across the Western world are on the slide. He was distinctly unsentimental when it came to closing the News of the World and his investors are likely to be even less so.
On Saturday, the Financial Times commented that "for years, shareholders have indulged Mr Murdoch's love of print because the political clout was worth the marginal loss". It also quoted an analyst at the investment bank Nomura who remarked that, if the BSkyB deal failed, the company would owe shareholders "an apology for having the least valuable division (UK newspapers) cause this much damage to investors".
Shedding some or all of his remaining British newspapers might help placate the money men, but, while the Sun would doubtless find a new owner, the loss making Times might not. Even Murdoch's most fervent critics would not want to see it go the way of the News of the Screws, yet that must be a possibility.
Suddenly friendless, with their papers in decline and the BSkyB deal slipping beyond their reach, it would not be surprising if the Murdochs decided to reduce their British presence, or even to give up on it altogether. ·
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