The plot thickens | Murdoch could be set to close both The Sun and The Times

Events in the News International phone hacking scandal are moving so quickly, it’s almost impossible to keep up. Today it was revealed that private investigators working for The Sun tabloid, had used so-called ‘blagging’ techniques (well known to over-the-phone phishing scammers for decades) to unearth the private medical records of former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s children.

One can barely imagine the scale of indignation which would have been aired, if a left-leaning tabloid had ran with a story, in which the tone of the piece appeared to point and laugh at the infant child of a conservative politician, for not only being born with a progressive disability, but into the arms of a politician with whom the paper’s editorial happens to disapproves.

But when the Murdoch owned red-top ran with the headline, “Brown’s baby has cystic fibrosis”, in November of 2006, even to those who are somewhat numb to the depths News International’s titles will sink, just to sell a paper, it couldn’t have been imagined that this information, about the then Chancellor of the Exchequer’s son, was obtained by means revealed today, which are so deeply illegal media law experts are already saying this alone would be sufficient to cause a full-scale police investigation into the paper that printed it.

But against the backdrop of the last 7 days, in which News International has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, in it’s ambition to buy BSkyB outright, by closing the News of the World newspaper, amidst allegations from the Metropolitan Police that it did so in order to conceal information into the original phone hacking allegations, such a fact merely blends into the stinking mire quickly rising up around Rupert and James Murdoch’s necks.

Brown himself is said to have been so furious, when he learned The Sun was going to run with the illegally obtained information, that he drew up plans to reveal the news of his son’s illness himself in a more considerate and positive way. But when the head of News International, Rebekah Brooks learned of this, she immediately sent a correspondent to the Sky News studios, to speak on-air of the following day’s Sun exclusive.

On any other day this alone would be a major story, but it was also revealed today, that a senior police guard working for Buckingham Palace, had stolen and sold to a News of the World journalist a phone book containing the personal contact details for senior members of the royal family, including Camilla and Prince Charles. Speculation that this was done, in order to keep personal information about the police officer in question from reaching the tabloid’s front pages, are also rife.

But as if that wasn’t enough, this major breach in royal security was also overshadowed by further allegations, corroborated in a phone recording obtained by the BBC’s Newsnight programme, that an investigator working for The Sunday Times had used similar ‘blagging’ tactics as were used to expose Fraser Brown’s medical condition, to unearth Gordon Brown’s private banking details.

Meanwhile, as Rupert Murdoch himself is in the UK to oversee the furore, it was announced that the plan to take-over BSkyB would no longer include spinning Sky News off into a separate concern. Murdoch had originally agreed to this as part of the original application to buy outright the company in which he already owns a 39% share, to ease regulator concerns over media plurality.

This shrewd move immediately triggered a transfer of the decision as to whether News International should be allowed to buy the digital broadcaster away from the secretary of state, to the competition commission, buying him a further 6 months to a year, before the deal will be looked at again by the regulator.

It is now being suggested that this was done as part of the vast house-cleaning operation, already in full swing at the behest of the American and Australian News Corp. shareholders, so that a second bid to buy BSkyB can go through at a later date without any interference from the UK’s media watchdog.

But in order to secure the deal the next time around, it is likely that shareholders would also force Murdoch to pull out of the UK newspaper business altogether—closing or selling his remaining titles, The Times, The Sunday Times and The Sun. This would mean that the issue of media plurality, when News Corp. makes a second bid for BSkyB, the ‘old media’ albatross of print journalism, which has hung around News International’s neck for so long, would have long flown over the horizon—opening the way for News Corp., owner of the extreme rightwing American broadcaster Fox News, to buy the UK’s biggest sports and entertainment broadcaster, with it’s flagship news channel, Sky News, still included in the deal.

What we are undoubtedly witnessing is the demise of Rupert Murdoch. What remains unclear, is who will replace him at the helm of News Corporation. James, his son and heir apparent, is himself facing questions over what he knew and when he knew it, as part of the police investigation into the original phone hacking scandal.

If it is proven that James knew about the details of an email, in which senior News International executives discussed the huge sums of money given to corrupt police officers and private investigators, despite that he has previously said he didn’t know about these payments, he would not only be incapable of heading News Corp. under US foreign practises legislation, but he could also find himself facing criminal corruption charges in a British court of law.

This would run concurrent with the court hearings for the mounting legal cases being brought against the publishing group, by celebrities and other public figures, whose personal details are contained in documents seized by police from Glen Mulcare—the private investigator who worked for the News of the World, at the time it ran stories obtained by illegal means.

What remains to be seen now, is how well Rebekah Brooks, James Murdoch, Andy Coulson and Rupert Murdoch, can shield themselves from two of the most closely followed judicial enquires into media practise ever mounted—and who will go down in flames with them.

If the story ran in Monday the 11th’s Daily Mirror paper, owned by Trinity Mirror, a rival publisher to News International, catches the American news media’s attention—that News of the World investigators attempted to bribe a New York city police officer, to obtain phone records of those killed in the twin towers on September 11th—what started as just another front page splash about Prince William, could lead to nothing less than the dismantlement of the entire Murdoch empire.

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