Political power and a hacking scandal, Rupert Murdoch's rise and fall in Britain

2011: Murdoch's wife's pie-blocking skills
2011: Murdoch's wife's pie-blocking skills

Twenty years ago, Rupert Murdoch was riding high in Britain.

"It's The Sun Wot Won It" blared the front page of his top-selling tabloid in April 1992 after Prime Minister John Major confounded opinion pollsters to claim a clear election victory.

Just how many voters were swayed by The Sun's fierce election day attack on Major's challenger from the Labour Party is unclear.

But the aura of influence surrounding Britain's most powerful media proprietor served his business interests well for decades -- until the phone hacking scandal exploded.

"Within two years [of the 1992 defeat] Labour had a new leader, Tony Blair, and a totally new approach to the right-wing press: appeasement, not confrontation," wrote Des Freedman, University of London professor of media and communications, last month.

Related: Murdoch plans to step down as 21st Century Fox CEO

Taking on the unions

Murdoch's powerful political connections date back much further. In a 1981 meeting kept secret for 30 years, he lobbied Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for her support in buying The Times and The Sunday Times. The deal went through, escaping scrutiny by competition regulators despite the fact that he already owned The Sun, and the News of the World -- the biggest daily and Sunday papers.

Murdoch and Thatcher were natural political allies, and with her government's support, Murdoch fought and won a fierce dispute with the powerful print unions in 1986 -- moving production of his papers to new presses in Wapping, east London.

The Blair years

In 1995, Blair flew to Australia to give a speech to a conference of Murdoch's top executives. It marked the start of a relationship that grew into a close personal friendship -- Blair became godfather to Murdoch's daughter in 2010.

The Sun backed Blair when he won his first landslide election victory in 1997, and gave strong support when the British leader decided to go along with President Bush in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In office, Labour dropped plans to investigate concentration of media ownership in the U.K., allowing Murdoch to continue to build his empire around his four newspapers, and satellite TV operation Sky (SKYAY). Blair denies he did deals with Murdoch on media policy.

Blair's successor, Gordon Brown, was also close to Murdoch but their relationship soured rapidly when he switched his allegiance to the Conservative Party in 2009. A year later, Brown had to concede defeat to David Cameron, who became prime minister at the head of a coalition government.

Phone hacking scandal

By then a storm was brewing that would shake Murdoch's U.K. business to the core, and leave him isolated politically.

News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned in 2007 after one of the newspaper's editors was jailed for hacking phones. He claimed to be unaware of the hacking, and was hired by Cameron as an adviser.

But the allegations snowballed, and Coulson quit as Cameron's spokesman in 2011. A few months later, Murdoch shuttered the 168-year-old paper after an outcry over the scandal.

Others forced to quit included former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks, and Les Hinton, head of Dow Jones and publisher of The Wall Street Journal. Hinton was a former head of Murdoch's U.K. newspaper business.

TV ambitions curbed

As public and political anger over the phone hacking scandal grew, Murdoch was forced to abandon his attempt to acquire the 60% of Sky (SKYAY) he doesn't control.

And his fall from grace was complete the following year when British lawmakers investigating phone hacking at News of the World declare him not fit "to exercise the stewardship of a major international company."

Murdoch's son James, who was executive chairman of the U.K. newspaper business until 2012, stepped down as Sky chairman later that year.

Coulson was eventually found guilty of conspiring to hack phones, and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Brooks was cleared of all charges against her.


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