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Saturday, 9 July 2011

You can hardly blame Rebekah Brooks' look of anxiety as her car is snapped by a photographer as she leaves her office. It's the kind of photo that's standard fare in tabloids like News of the World, the newspaper the company she manages - News International - owns and has now decided to shutter following shocking revelations of unethical and illegal practices used by its reporters to glean private information for stories by hacking into the mobile phone accounts of British individuals. Standard fare, indeed: the accused being transported to or from the courthouse and the airing of allegations that could destroy a person's reputation, reshape their life. It may come to that, the British prime minister says.

James Murdoch fronted staff at the newspaper to make the unexpected announcement - which included words that pointed a trembling finger at "wrongdoers" at the paper who will "have to face the consequences" - that the paper would close after the following Sunday's edition. But the firm hand of his father Rupert is discernible behind the move.

It's no great loss for the family. Newspapers account for only 13 percent of its revenues. Newspapers serve a purpose in that they let Murdoch influence politicians, public institutions and the public so that money can be made in abundance elsewhere, notably in television. Shutting down the NotW was, for Rupert Murdoch, nothing more or less than than a mercy killing. When you own racehorses and one breaks its leg there's only one thing to do. A sick horse can win no races. Then there's the pain to endure. Better for all concerned, if you ignore the paper's 200-odd staff who received the news that they would lose their jobs with a mixture of astonishment and shock.

In plain fact, the NotW had quickly become something of a liability because of the revelations. It's unwelcome high profile suddenly threatened to derail Murdoch's plan to purchase the 61 percent of British pay-TV broadcaster BSkyB that he didn't already own. Since the scandal broke, lawmakers have decided to push back a decision about the takeover until September. It is a decision that had been imminent.

As for what will happen to Brooks, former New South Wales premier Bob Carr thinks that she must eventually resign. Another view holds that Brooks is being kept at News International so that she can be sacrificed at a later date if circumstances take a worse turn as police and official investigations proceed and as further dirt emerges to stain the reputations of people close to the newspaper. Certainly Rupert Murdoch will be keen to protect the reputation of his son, James, and shielding him from anticipated attacks might just save him from any further shame rubbing off.

Whatever happens, Brooks does not have much to be happy about at this point in time especially since it has been announced by persons unknown that she will not take the helm at the planned Sun on Sunday paper that is being widely mooted to replace NotW, as far as we can credibly assert given the extent of present knowledge within the rapidly-evolving environment in which this astonishing story is unfolding. We have seen a short video clip showing Brooks admitting before a parliamentary enquiry that police had been paid by NotW for information. We have read that a previous NotW editor, Andy Coulson, has been arrested by police. And we have have learned that the prime minister is to launch two official enquiries - possibly with powers to compel people to answer questions - into both the police bribery and into press oversight in Britain.

Murdoch's media rivals globally are unlikely to let him off the hook easily, which guarantees extensive media coverage of the case at various points around the globe as events unfold in the UK. There are also those, such as the UK Opposition leader Ed Miliband, who are sure to maintain the pressure on News - in Miliband's case so that he can continue to score points against adversary Cameron, who has close links to Coulson and Brooks. Other politicians will be ready to snap at Murdoch's heels every time he enters the public sphere because of the resentment they feel about the power News papers have held.

It's a couple of months until summer emerges Down Under, and those involved in the multinational News franchise will see the season change before this drama has completely played itself out. The saga raises questions about how large media organisations operate and whether they can be sustainable. Clearly Murdoch has few friends with the current situation, and this prompts queries about the sustainability of a model of proprietorship where editorial tone and direction are driven from the very top. The elephant in the room being, of course, the amount of control that the octogenarian partiarch exercises over editorial decisions. Few who watch the media on a regular basis will have any doubts that this happens, despite public pronouncements from News management and the credible-seeming structures that have been put in place to deflect accusations of control over editorial.

The NotW case puts all of this into play in a dangerous way because it alters the power relations between actors involved in the routine drama of daily headlines and allegiances cemented in tony restaurants and executive boardrooms. Is this model of media ownership sustainable when things go awry somewhere else in the corporate structure? If the public is angry because you have stepped over the line of decency that they feel to be their due, and politicians are angry because they smell blood, and the authorities have become involved because laws have been repeatedly broken, and your enemies are energised by the opportunities you have suddenly handed them, can you continue to thrive within the system of laws, customs, and rhetorical devices that have kept the machine running for so long?

How much goodwill can a media owner rely on when the performers no longer collude in the (apparently) scripted web of relations that exist in the public sphere? The answer to that question explains the anxiety on Rebekah Brooks' face.

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