By common consent, Murdoch is the single most powerful media figure in the English-speaking world. From humble beginnings in Adelaide in 1952, he slowly has built a global vertically integrated media and entertainment conglomerate that ritually makes and breaks democratic governments and shapes our public space more than any other single entity.
Whether in America, donating $1 million to the Republicans, in the UK summoning would-be prime ministers across the world to his private court or in Australia vowing to destroy the Greens as a political entity, News Corp long ago crossed the line that separates news companies as observers of the political process from the direct players.
So any claim - and there inevitably will be in the weeks ahead - that action to curb Murdoch's power equates to a curb on the freedom of the press needs to be taken with a large grain of salt. Throughout the phone-tapping controversy in the UK, News Corp's management have sought to portray this behaviour as isolated and completely out of step with its professed ethics as a news organisation. But there is enough evidence from those who have worked inside the Murdoch empire that this sort of behaviour was a natural expression of the "whatever it takes" ethos that drives its journalism - not just in the UK but around the world.
The fact is News Corporation - like Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers in investment banking - is just too big and its tentacles are entangled too closely with our democratic institutions to believe that the public good is served by it continuing to exist in its present form. This is a company that professes a love for free markets, but which acts ruthlessly to stamp out would-be competitors. This is a company that uses its power primarily to further the commercial and ideological interests of its proprietor. And this is a company whose poisonous culture is a pox on journalism. It is the Failed Estate writ large.
The phone hacking case in the UK is the equivalent of the sub-prime mortgages blamed for the GFC - a symptom of the problem, not the underlying cause. In the case of the financial crisis, bankers gave up on their former humble yet honest roles as intermediaries to become players instead - using their balance sheets and an implied public guarantee to leverage up and take risks that would have made their soberly pinstriped ancestors spin in their graves. So big were the subsequent obligations and so potentially ruinous to the financial system, that governments had no choice but to bail out the banks. And taxpayers are now footing the bill. In this media crisis, News Corp has given up any pretence that it is a mere news company that acts in the public interest and now acts purely in its own interest. Like the Wall St banks, it has become so big and so influential that it virtually lives outside the law. And like the banks, if the laws don't suit, it gets them changed.
In Australia, the fact that one company owns 70 per cent of our metropolitan print media goes a long way to explaining the dire nature of our public discourse. News Corp now routinely uses its papers to pursue a policy agenda that suits its commercial and ideological interests - whether it be campaigning against the National Broadband Network, promoting industry-funded climate change denialism as mainstream "science" or fighting its silly culture wars.
In the UK, it has taken the public outrage over the discovery that agents of the tabloids were hacking into the phones of the relatives of a murdered teenage girl (and perhaps also relatives of British soldiers and terrorism victims) to prompt a rare show of defiance by politicians against a nasty, malignant corporate bully whose time must surely be up and whose publications are a blight on our democracy. Who will have the guts in Australia to take Murdoch on?
A series of inquiries into the financial crisis concluded that we must stop banks becoming so big and so interconnected with the financial markets that they are deemed 'too big to fail'. In the immortal words of Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi, Goldman Sachs had become a "great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money". Well, News Corp is the media equivalent. The sheer ferocity of its own blood lust is there now for us all to see. We have a chance now to rip this parasite from the face of our democracy before it sucks us completely dry.
- Live updates on the #NOTW phone hacking investigation on the Guardian's news blog here.
- 'Murdoch's Watergate?' by Carl Bernstein in Newsweek here.
- 'News would do well not to keep it in the family' by Michael Woolf in the Guardian here
- 'Scandal Reverberates Beyond Murdoch Empire' by David McKnight in The Conversation here.
- 'What to do about the power of the corporate media?' by George Monbiot here.