With Necks on the Line, Murdoch & Co. Face The Proverbial Guillotine

Half close your eyes and you could imagine the tumbrils rolling through the streets of London today as more of the now fearful high and mighty are headed for the implacable Madame Guillotine.

Today it is the turn of Rupert and James Murdoch together with his former chief executive Rebekah Brooks who resigned on Friday and was arrested and questioned for 12 hours on Sunday over the phone hacking scandal.

They are being questioned by a House of Commons select committee who have been sharpening their knives and axes over the last few days in response to the public outcry over News International journalists tapping the phone messages not merely of politicians and celebrities, but a missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler who was found murdered.

Outside Parliament eager spectators have been waiting for hours for a chance to witness what they hope is the verbal execution of the most powerful media mogul in the world -- or at least one of Murdoch’s deputies. Knitting wool is not supplied.

Whatever the outcome of today’s sharp cross questioning of this family of News International aristocrats - Rupert considers Rebekah as close as a daughter - the media mogul has already been cut down to size - losing a fifth of the value of News Corps and any goodwill he ever enjoyed from the public.

There is other collateral damage. Two of Britain’s most senior policemen have fallen on their swords, resigning in the wake of the scandal. While protesting their innocence and integrity, Madame Guillotine has taken their scalps, beheaded for the way they conducted the initial inquiry into phone tapping and for hiring a former NI executive Neil Wallis - another of the 10 journalists and newspaper executives arrested - to advise them on media strategy.

The Fourth Estate is paying a high price for this scandal. Last night it was revealed that former News of the World journalist and whistleblower Sean Hoare, who was one of the first to reveal the extent of phone hacking, had taken his life.

The police too are in the midst of an unparalleled period of soul searching about their all too cosy relationship with the media. Heads are rolling by the hour.

The biggest head has yet to fall into the basket. Prime Minister David Cameron, currently and conveniently in Africa selling British industry has been lagging behind the crowd in this whole affair. For good reason. It shows his weaknesses before the baying mob.

His decision to hire former News of the World editor Andy Coulson - another NI executive facing prosecution and the prospect of jailtime - as his Head of Communications has attracted widespread criticism for his lack of judgment. Moreover his cosy relationship with Rebekah Brooks - she spent part of last Christmas with the Cameron family - is another factor that seems to have clouded his thinking. He is irredeemably tainted by the scandal.

There have already been political parallels made with President Nixon and Watergate. More appropriate is the way that the scandal over Britain’s decision to invade Iraq on the false premise of finding weapons of mass destruction and the subsequent suicide of scientist David Kelly stained the reputation and standing of war leader Tony Blair.  The death of Sean Hoare is now to Cameron what Kelly was to Blair.

Unlike Blair, Cameron is the leader of an increasingly restless Coalition between his Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats. Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg and his senior supporters, notably Vince Cable, had warned Cameron about Coulson. They have never played cosy with the media aristocrats at News International.

For the last few months Clegg and Co. have been on the back foot, blamed for the swingeing cuts imposed on Britain’s public services. If he were a ruthless politician Clegg would smell blood - the chance to bring the head of Old Etonian David Cameron on a platter before the angry mob.  He could break up the Coalition and force an election, saving his political life and dealing a fatal blow to the standing of the Prime Minister.

Will Clegg prove himself the cold and calculating Robespierre in this unprecedented bloodbath of the British establishment?  Madame Guillotine awaits.

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As one of the world’s best-known biographers and a leading authority on modern celebrity, Morton has been called "the king of celebrity biographers." He became an overnight sensation with the publication of his groundbreaking 1992 biography revealing the secret world of the late Diana, Princess…

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