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A demonstrator dressed in a Rupert Murdoch mask controls puppets of British Prime Minister David Cameron (foreground) and British Minister for Culture, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt, (right) during a protest against Mr. Murdoch's proposed takeover of BSkyB. (ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images)
A demonstrator dressed in a Rupert Murdoch mask controls puppets of British Prime Minister David Cameron (foreground) and British Minister for Culture, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt, (right) during a protest against Mr. Murdoch's proposed takeover of BSkyB. (ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Why Rupert Murdoch's reign may be over Add to ...

For decades, Rupert Murdoch used an audacious mix of naked capitalist aggression, daring and opportunistic timing to bludgeon his way to the top of the British media market, where he ruled like an emperor.

His successes brought him enough power to make or break political careers. As he assembled the world's second-largest media and entertainment empire, behind only the Walt Disney company, he came to be wooed by cabinet ministers and premiers, who both feared and courted the aging News Corp. chairman. Their reverence made his business aspirations ever easier to achieve.

The rules that governed ordinary media barons and their empires didn't seem to apply to Mr. Murdoch. Early this year, the government gave him the ability to stave off a competition commission inquiry into his company's proposed purchase of the 61 per cent of British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB), Britain's dominant satellite-TV service, that he did not already own. Sidelining the commission enraged the Opposition, which accused the government of doing everything possible to ensure Mr. Murdoch would get his prize with minimum fuss.

On Friday, the day after James Murdoch, Mr. Murdoch's son, closed the News of the World, the tabloid behind the bombshell phone-hacking scandal, British Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledged that courting the media had gone way too far.

The result was an immoral alliance between politicians, the press and the police that has now triggered criminal investigations into the hacking scandal, a probe into police payoffs for story tips, a public inquiry into media regulation and the execution of the News of the World, the English-language market's biggest newspaper.

"Over the decades, on the watch of both Labour leaders and Conservative leaders, politicians and the press have spent time courting support, not confronting the problems," Mr. Cameron said. "Well, it's on my watch that the music has stopped."

Translation: The Murdoch reign may be over.

The enmity toward the Murdochs in general and the News of the World in particular is palpable in Britain, from the Prime Minister himself, who called the hacking scandal "absolutely disgusting," to the readers and advertisers who boycotted the tabloid because they were shocked by the allegations that the paper's reporters hacked into thousands of mobile phones, including those of murdered children and the relatives of dead British soldiers. Advertisers abandoned the News of the World in droves. On Friday, French auto giant Renault announced it would yank its ads from all of Mr. Murdoch's London papers.

The turnaround has been swift and brutal. Mr. Murdoch has been compared to a North African dictator; powerful one day, yet unaware of his own vulnerability, and on the run the next day as the masses rise up against him. Where politicians "wanted him on their side," according to one member of the House of Lords, "both sides of Parliament are absolutely opposed to Murdoch now ... Now it's the kiss of death to have him on your side."

The storm blows in

The week that turned into a horror story for the Murdochs started just fine. In the days leading up to The Guardian's revelation that News of the World reporters had hacked in the phone of murdered teenager Milly Dowler, there was no talk that the tabloid, still profitable and back to its old scoop-generating self, would meet an early demise. The government had signalled that approval for News Corp.'s bid to take full control of BSkyB, a company with a stock market value of £14-billion ($22-billion), would come before the middle of July.

Approval would have an ulterior benefit: Confirmation that James Murdoch, 38, the driving force behind the buyout, could handle a big acquisition, reinforcing his credentials as his father's worthy successor, and guaranteeing the Murdoch family control for another generation. For News Corp., earnings from BSkyB would help to offset the declining newspaper assets.

But by the end of the week, those aspirations were left in tatters. The News of the World was dead; the government had ordered independent inquiries into the hacking scandal; Mr. Cameron himself suggested that Rebekah Brooks, the tabloid's editor in the early days of the hacking campaign, now CEO of its parent company News International, should resign; and Andy Coulson, who replaced Ms. Brooks as editor and went on to become the Prime Minister's communications director, was arrested along with Clive Goodman, the paper's former Royals editor.

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  • Updated March 23 4:00 PM EDT. Delayed by at least 15 minutes.

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