The acquittal of Rupert Murdoch’s protegee over phone hacking at his News of the World tabloid is a relief for the 83-year-old tycoon and his businesses, although his 40 year spell over British politics is probably still broken for good.
A jury on Tuesday found former News of the World editor Andy Coulson guilty of conspiracy to hack into voice-mail messages. But Mr. Murdoch’s protegee Rebekah Brooks was cleared of those charges, as well as accusations of making illegal payments to officials and perverting the course of justice.
That suggests that illegal activity – rampant at the tabloid in its hunt for scoops about the rich and famous – had not penetrated deep into senior management at Mr. Murdoch’s News Corp., and may reduce the risk that his global businesses could face corporate charges in Britain or in the United States.
But Mr. Murdoch will probably never again hold the influence he once had, symbolized by Mr. Coulson who had moved from the editorship of the News of the World into Downing Street as Prime Minister David Cameron’s media chief.
Mr. Cameron apologized on Tuesday for ever employing him.
“I don’t think you can expect members of the Mr. Murdoch family to be in and out of Downing Street any time soon,” said Paul Farrelly, a lawmaker with the opposition Labour Party and a member of the parliamentary group that investigated the scandal.
Mr. Murdoch’s $86-billion (U.S.) media empire is now well prepared for any further claims. Arguably, the restructuring that followed the scandal has only made the businesses stronger.
On the advice of some of the most prominent lawyers in the United States, Mr. Murdoch set up a committee to investigate his own staff and help the police. To appease investors, he split his firm to separate the more profitable assets from the problematic newspapers and he bought back shares, boosting their value.
He remains chairman of both companies – 21st Century Fox which owns cable networks and News Corp. which retains the publishing assets – while his two sons Lachlan and James sit on both boards.
“His political clout is no longer evident,” former Murdoch editor Roy Greenslade said. “But if we use the metaphor of a liner hitting an iceberg, he has managed to patch it up so successfully it is sailing on into the future.
“He’s still the captain on the bridge. And given his age and the fact it was the most humble day of his life, he’s survived in remarkable spirits.”
The future even looks brighter for News UK, the organization that rose from the ashes of the British newspaper arm.
The daily Sun tabloid, while losing readers in line with all British newspapers, is still the country’s biggest selling title with more than two million copies sold a day. The weekly News of the World, shut down because of the scandal, has been replaced by a new Sunday edition of the Sun. E-mails that were read out in court revealed that move had in fact been long planned anyway.
News Corp., which includes newspapers, publishing and an educational business, has a market value of nearly $10-billion. Fox, with its cable TV and film assets, is worth $76-billion.
The scandal was the biggest setback Mr. Murdoch has ever faced. One former senior News Corp. executive, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Mr. Murdoch had taken his eye off the ball when the trouble hit his British newspapers. In 2007, he bought Dow Jones and the jewel in the crown: the Wall Street Journal. “He lost interest in the U.K. and that was a real turning point,” the former senior executive told Reuters.
Although his grip on his business empire is now in no doubt, away from the boardroom Mr. Murdoch’s position is less certain, with his peculiar hold over British politics likely broken for good.