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Published: Friday, 7/22/2011

Murdoch dethroned

Even before he was nearly hit in the face with a plate of shaving cream during his testimony before Parliament this week, billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch knew that the karma train was bearing down on him.

Between the implosion of the $14 billion deal to purchase controlling shares of the bSkyb satellite network, the resignations and arrests of several of Mr. Murdoch's most trusted lieutenants, and the closing of the News of the World, the still profitable 168-year-old paper that gave the Australian native a toe-hold in British media and politics 30 years ago, it has been a comeuppance of Shakespearian proportions. The would-be King of all Media had taken a tumble.

News Corp.'s 80-year-old chairman and chief executive officer prefaced his testimony before Parliament with a frank acknowledgment: "This is the most humble day of my life." For two hours, Mr. Murdoch and his son James, News Corp.'s deputy chief operating officer, sparred politely with interlocutors in Parliament who demanded to know who was in charge when the News of the World went off the rails.

Both Murdochs insisted that despite being conscientious managers, neither noticed or understood that the News of the World had engaged in phone hacking or that News Corp. was paying millions to quietly settle lawsuits resulting from illegal activity. In frustration, a member of Parliament asked the Murdochs if they were familiar with the term "willful blindness."

The elder Murdoch argued that he didn't know what went on at a newspaper that represented 1 percent of the company's assets. The younger Murdoch claimed that the full extent of the scandal wasn't clear to him until last year. He joined the company after the bulk of the phone hacking had been committed.

The Murdochs were contrite even while insisting they were out of the loop at crucial times during the scandal's development. If recent reports -- the possible hacking of 9/11 victims and charges made by actor Jude Law that his phone was illegally accessed while filming a movie in America -- bear fruit, News Corp. will have to deal with an FBI investigation and a firestorm in America.

In recent days, two of London's highest-ranking cops -- including the director of Scotland Yard -- resigned under a cloud. Both are suspected of having been too accommodating to News Corp. during earlier investigations of the hacking scandal.

When the News of the World's victims were celebrities and royalty, there wasn't as much outrage about its practices. But when it was revealed that the paper hacked the phone of 13-year-old murder victim Milly Dowler and the families of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan, the disgust was immediate. The paper is believed to have hacked an estimated 4,000 phones over the years.

Whatever happens, it will be difficult for Britain's political elite and News Corp. to ever return to a status quo where Rupert Murdoch was both feared and respected. His appearance before the British Parliament revealed him to be more King Lear than King of all Media.



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