Ron Frehm, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Rupert Murdoch is a political kingmaker in Britain and his native Australia. In the United States, he's best known for promoting conservative opinion through media properties like the Fox News Channel. And in China, he's primarily a businessman working to give his News Corp. empire a toehold in that country's tightly controlled media market.
The phone hacking scandal roiling Britain has cast a fresh light on the billionaire media mogul's influence around the globe.
His outsize political role in Britain will almost certainly be reduced amid evidence his newspapers illegally hacked phones, including that of a murdered teenager, and bribed police. It's less clear what will happen in Australia. Murdoch's political engagement in the U.S. and elsewhere is less intimate and may not be as compromised by the burgeoning controversy.
"His newspapers in England are far more directly involved in politics than anything he owns in the U.S," said Michael Wolff, editorial director of Adweek magazine and author of a Murdoch biography, "The Man Who Owns the News." "He's significantly more influential in the political life of that country."
In the U.S. and other countries, Wolff said, "he's wielded considerable influence but much less than in the U.K. He's focused his influence mainly on the regulatory issues that most affect his business."
Murdoch has been the most influential outside player in British politics for decades, with leaders of all ideological stripes competing for his backing. He's often referred to as the country's permanent Cabinet member.
The hacking scandal has freed British lawmakers, who have long lived in fear of his power. They issued a summons to Murdoch and his son James to appear before a parliamentary committee investigating the scandal — a step that would have been unthinkable until recently.
In the U.S., the FBI has begun a preliminary inquiry based on concerns in Congress over a report that News Corp. sought to hack into the phones of Sept. 11 victims, Attorney General Eric Holder said Friday at a press conference in Australia, where he was attending a meeting of attorneys general from several nations.
Murdoch began building his power in Britain in the 1980s, when Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher allowed Murdoch to add The Times and The Sunday Times to his stable of media properties, including The Sun and the News of the World, the tabloid primarily connected to the hacking scandal. Murdoch shuttered the News of the World last week.
Murdoch returned Thatcher's favor, and his papers strongly backed her conservative policies.
Murdoch continued to have relationships with British leaders after Thatcher stepped down. In the 1992 parliamentary elections, when it looked as though Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock might topple Thatcher's successor, John Major, as prime minister, The Sun published a bold front-page headline: "If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights." That headline was credited with helping Major and the Tories to victory.
Murdoch eventually switched his allegiance to Tony Blair, the Labour prime minister from 1997-2007. Blair telephoned Murdoch repeatedly before committing British troops to the Iraq war in 2003, which was strongly endorsed by Murdoch's newspapers across the world.
Blair's successor, Labour Party leader Gordon Brown, tried initially to resist Murdoch's influence. But he did attend the wedding of the company's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, who was News of the World editor in 2002 when the paper's operatives hacked the phone of 13-year-old murder victim Milly Dowler, giving her family false hope that their daughter was still alive.
Brooks, a loyal Murdoch lieutenant, resigned Friday as the chief executive of his embattled newspapers. Murdoch had vigorously defended Brooks from politicians who wanted her to go and had previously refused to accept her resignation. James Murdoch said Murdoch's media company would run ads in major British newspapers to apologize for the phone hacking scandal.