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Rupert Murdoch as 'The Wizard of Oz'?

By Emily Bell, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Emily Bell: Britain has a love-hate relationship with Rupert Murdoch's media empire
  • Murdoch's British media are tightly controlled by the family
  • She says it's breathtaking to see the power nexus exposed by the scandal
  • Bell: News Corp.'s British unit shaken to core by scandal and "amateurish cover-up"

Editor's note: Emily Bell is director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University and former director of digital content for The Guardian.

(CNN) -- Nothing illustrated Britain's love-hate relationship with Rupert Murdoch better than Tuesday's parliamentary select committee hearing into the phone-hacking scandal. The British public hate the persona of Murdoch, his power and influence, yet voraciously consume his products.

The dramatic event highlighted the public antipathy and fascination with a dynasty at the heart of modern Britain, but whose power is now severely challenged, and might never be restored to its recent former glory.

Angry demonstrators waving placards picketed Parliament as Murdoch and his retinue swept up to the building. Main news outlets showed blanket coverage of the normally pedestrian select committee, and right on cue a clownish pie-thrower disrupted proceedings with a plate of shaving foam aimed at the elderly mogul, who was athletically defended by his volleyball playing wife Wendi Deng.

As theater, it could not have been more keenly anticipated, or more fulfilling in its delivery.

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The country was riveted by the Murdoch hearings, where first Rupert Murdoch, then his son James and finally former News International executive Rebekah Brooks were questioned for more than three hours by a parliamentary committee determined to have its moment in a journalistic scandal that has engulfed not just Murdoch's papers, but also the UK's largest police force and the government itself.

The rare spectacle of Britain's cultural bogeyman being held to account by elected representatives was electrifying, even if the fresh revelations were kept to a highly controlled minimum. What we learned was that News Corp. is either shambolically run, or is still practicing a certain amount of obfuscation of the truth.

Rupert Murdoch, it seemed, could not remember much about what was going on at the News of the World -- "a tiny part of the company" -- nor could he remember who had first told him it was embroiled in a phone-hacking scandal, or a whole host of other details.

James Murdoch, who does not have age as an excuse for a fuzzy memory, was also often unable to remember precise details of elements of the case -- or indeed whether News Corp. was still paying the legal fees of a private eye who has already been jailed for the offense of hacking in to royal phones. Which is a very significant detail.

What is so remarkable about the scandal is its huge impact on public life. Ahead of the Murdochs, another parliamentary committee, this time one focused on Home Affairs, interviewed Sir Paul Stephenson, the former head of the Metropolitan Police, and his former deputy John Yates. Both men had resigned in the past few days, leaving the police force, responsible for the London area, with a power vacuum.

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While the Murdochs were speaking in front of the select committee, the Conservative Party revealed a further twist, that David Cameron's former press secretary -- and former News of the World editor -- Andy Coulson had been informally seeking advice from another disgraced News of the World journalist, Neil Wallis, ahead of the election.

Such is the invasive nature of Rupert Murdoch's power nexus that watching it crumble so publicly is like seeing a tree pulled out of the ground; its extensive root network leaving a great crater at the heart of the establishment -- shaking free all manner of bugs and worms and bare earth in the process. Even though we knew it was there, the exposure of the extent of this network is nevertheless breathtaking.

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The fragility of the News Corp. management was what was mostly on display in Westminster. News Corp. is not a company with 50 equally powerful vice presidents and a deep management structure. It is Rupert Murdoch; his family, who he rather emotionally said he would love to see take over the business "if they want to"; his former trusted chief executive Brooks, who resigned over phone hacking and was briefly detained by police over the weekend; Les Hinton, the former News International chief executive who has been Murdoch's main support in his purchase of The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones but who has also now gone over hacking.

There are others in the United States untouched by the scandal such as Chase Carey, News Corp.'s chief operating officer, but the inner sanctum around Murdoch is so tight, that the departure of Brooks and Hinton and the possible destabilization of James leaves the core team at the top depleted, with Murdoch undeniably less vigorous than in his prime.

The convenient amnesia and theatrics Tuesday cannot hide the undeniable fact that News Corp.'s British division is shaken to its core by the hacking scandal and the amateurish cover-up that followed it. The powerful are deserting Murdoch, and his executives are under close examination, not just by Parliament but by the law.

The British expectation has for so long been that Murdoch, the great wheeler-dealer, the great escape artist, will always end up on top. But this piece of mythology, which so many of us have grown up with, does now genuinely seem to be exploding before our eyes.

The parliamentary select committee hearing Tuesday had a "Wizard of Oz" feel about it, with James Murdoch as the smart but robotic tin man, and his father, who has exercised such a powerful effect on the collective British imagination, as the frail wizard whose power base looks increasingly illusory.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Emily Bell.

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