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Another phone hacking victim, another blow to Murdoch's power in Britain

Revelations of another phone hacking victim – the mother of 8-year-old murder victim Sarah Payne – adds to a culture war that pits Rupert Murdoch’s profit-driven ethos against Britain's establishment press.

By Staff writer / July 29, 2011

Former News International Chief Executive Rebekah Brooks (l.) stands next to Sara Payne, mother of murdered girl Sarah, who died at the hands of a pedophile. Payne has been told by detectives that her contact details are on a list compiled by a P.I. used by the News of the World, currently being investigated for illegal phone hacking.

Stefan Rousseau/AP/File

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London

At the start of July, Rupert Murdoch was days from acquiring full control of Britain’s most profitable satellite TV, British Sky Broadcasting, known as BSkyB. He already owned 39 percent of it. But a full buyout would clear the way to create a British equivalent of Fox News, the US channel and one of Mr. Murdoch’s biggest cash cows. The step would have marked another triumph for the global Murdoch News Corp. empire. And it had the cultivated support and blessing of Prime Minister David Cameron.

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Instead, what Murdoch got on July 4 was a phone-hacking scandal so volcanic that 10 days later he ended his BSkyB bid, and later apologized to a world audience.

What Mr. Cameron got was questions about why he hired Andy Coulson, a former Murdoch editor who presided over the sleaziest period of phone hacking, for one of the most important jobs at 10 Downing Street.

Revelations, starting with the illegally accessed voice mail of a 13-year-old murdered girl, Milly Dowler, quickly grew to include the fact that News of the World (NotW) operatives illegally broke into the phones of some 3,870 people. Public indignation soared over the use of ordinary people’s private tragedies as tabloid fodder. Anger was magnified by evidence of News Corp. executives schmoozing with politicians and police.

On Thursday, Scotland Yard had added another victim to the list – Sara Payne, whose 8-year-old daughter, Sarah, was murdered by a repeat sex offender in 2000. Ms. Payne’s tragedy was the launching point for a NotW campaign to “name and shame” pedophiles. Payne allegedly received the phone that was subsequently hacked as a gift from Rebekah Brooks, then NotW editor.

Officials and executives caught in the scandal’s fallout depict it as bickering over relatively small lapses of judgment. For those who’ve long chafed at Murdoch’s use of media to bully politicians, it is a Watergate-sized affair, a battle between light and dark, with nothing less than the health of British democracy at stake.

Culture wars deepen

However it plays out, analysts say, the Dowler affair has brought into sharper relief a deeper, longstanding culture war that pits Murdoch’s free-market ethos of “giving people what they want” against an establishment that has, until now, been in a losing fight over press standards and a sense of what is civil and progressive.

“What Murdoch wants is Fox News here,” says Polly Toynbee, a columnist with the Guardian, a paper that was instrumental, along with The New York Times, in exposing the phone hacking. “He plays off the BBC as old-fashioned and starchy.... We were days away from Murdoch having complete power ... we were headed for a Berlusconi Britain.”

Murdoch for years has been the savvy corporate buccaneer, siding with the “common man,” poking the British elite as stuffy and old-fashioned. His cry: Privatize! Deregulate! Shake off the past and the lazy and liberal state-funded civil service that is holding back Britain from competitive excellence!

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