Murdoch plays Lear but it's Miliband who steals show
The Labour leader is now main winner in phone-hacking scandal that has become a Shakespearian tragedy, says Nicholas Leonard
Published 20/07/2011 | 08:00
Mps at Westminster start their summer holidays today. But before they go, they have an end-of-term treat in store: the extraordinary spectacle of the world's most important media owner, Rupert Murdoch, being grilled by a Commons committee about the phone-hacking scandal which has engulfed him and his company.
In theory, it should make compulsive viewing. But the arrest on Sunday of one of Murdoch's closest colleagues in Britain, Rebekah Brooks, has raised serious doubts about whether the MPs can get stuck into Murdoch and his son, James, without the risk of prejudicing criminal investigations and the proposed judicial inquiry into the scandal.
Committee chairman John Whittingdale said that he hoped the MPs on it will remain calm: "I don't want us to be a lynch mob. On the other hand I don't want us to let them off without properly addressing the questions which we have."
Rupert Murdoch is reported to have been taking advice from an American public-relations expert on how to handle the grilling. He has already had the humiliating experience of apologising in person to the family of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, whose phone was hacked by his journalists.
The speed at which Murdoch's empire is disintegrating around him has astonished even his most stringent critics at Westminster.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg called it "News Corpse" last week and said on Sunday: "I think it's undoubtedly true that when you give an individual or a small number of people a huge amount of power without proper accountability, things go wrong."
"Going wrong" hardly begins to describe the disasters undermining Murdoch. Followers of Twitter are circulating quotes from Shakespeare which sum up his plight. With its subplot of a divided and feuding Murdoch family, there are parallels with the tragedy of King Lear: "You see me here, you gods, a poor old man- as full of grief as age, wretched in both." It is not much consolation for Murdoch that Prime Minister David Cameron is also finding the phone-hacking and police-corruption affair acutely embarrassing.
It is now claimed that his fatally flawed decision to make Andy Coulson, the former News of the World editor, his official spindoctor was taken on the suggestion of Ms Brooks in order to have a permanent hotline between Downing Street and the Murdoch corporation.
The scandal is also undermining the police, following awkward revelations about the chummy contacts between Paul Stephenson, the head of the Metropolitan Police, and News Corporation. Mr Stephenson has resigned from his position "as a consequence of the ongoing speculation and accusations relating to the Met's links with News International" and in particular as a result of his links to ex-News of the World executive Neil Wallis.
Mr Clegg has highlighted the intense anxiety in the Cabinet about the integrity of the police: "I think when the public starts losing faith in the police it is altogether more serious and we are really in trouble."
The ancient Romans knew the problem. They had a catchphrase, "quis custodiet ipsos custodies?", meaning "who will police the police?" The key figures of the British establishment are so intertwined in so many ways that answering that question is far from easy.
The pressure on Mr Cameron over the Murdoch affair has brought some benefits for Mr Clegg, who is gaining some belated personal credibility after a very difficult period.
But by far the biggest beneficiary has been Labour leader Ed Miliband. He was on a train on Friday and found himself mobbed by fellow passengers who simply wanted to shake his hand.
His supporters say he has been far more upfront in his attacks on the Murdoch empire than his brother, David, would have dared to be.
If, as seems likely, the News International empire is either broken up under new anti-monopoly laws or becomes politically irrelevant under new management, then he will gain further strength within his own party ranks.