The end of an empire?

Photo illustration courtesy The Economist
The Economist Online

Not since the East India Company was finally brought to heel in the 19th century has political power over an influential private enterprise in Britain been so brutally enforced. On July 13th, with MPs poised to approve by a staggering majority a motion telling Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation to retract its bid for full control of BSkyB, Britain’s dominant satellite broadcaster, the company caved in and did just that.

Meanwhile, David Cameron announced an inquiry into nefarious practices at the late News of the World, Britain’s bestselling Sunday newspaper until it closed its doors in shame on July 10th, and into press ethics and regulation more broadly.

The terms of trade have shifted swiftly and sharply against Mr Murdoch in a way that Hosni Mubarak might appreciate. Only a couple of weeks ago Mr Murdoch’s papers, which have around two-fifths of Britain’s national print market, gave him extraordinary access to the same politicians who now all condemn him as evil incarnate; that power, it has become clear, also helped his lieutenants at News International, the British newspaper arm of News Corp, to thumb their noses at the police investigating various phone-hacking claims.

Yet ever since the allegation on July 4th that the News of the World had hacked into the phone of Milly Dowler, a murdered schoolgirl, things have disintegrated. Nothing Mr Murdoch has done—from closing down the News of the World to giving up the bid for BSkyB—has stopped the onrush.