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The World from Berlin: 'British Democracy Is a Farce'

As the News of the World phone hacking scandal continues to unfold, there are indications that it extends beyond the press to the police and even the government. German papers on Thursday write that the situation reveals grave problems within Britain's democratic system.

Rupert Murdoch, CEO of News Corp., smiles for photographers in London on Wednesday. Zoom
Getty Images

Rupert Murdoch, CEO of News Corp., smiles for photographers in London on Wednesday.

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch was forced to retract his bid for British broadcasting giant British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB) on Wednesday as the scandal over phone hacking and police bribery by his tabloid News of the World continued to unfold. Amid what Prime Minister David Cameron called a "firestorm" sweeping through the nation, lawmakers had joined forces across party lines to demand the withdrawal, ending Murdoch's ambitions to achieve what may have been his most profitable takeover yet.

"There is a firestorm, if you like, that is engulfing parts of the media, parts of the police, and indeed our political system's ability to respond," said Cameron Wednesday in the House of Commons, where he also promised a government inquiry into allegations against journalists at Murdoch's British papers.

"What we must do in the coming days and weeks is think above all of the victims ... to make doubly sure that we get to the bottom of this and that we prosecute those who are responsible," he said.

His remarks followed recent allegations by rival newspaper the Guardian that the News of the World had hacked into a phone belonging to a murdered schoolgirl in 2002. The report was a follow-up to an affair that began in 2006, when the first revelations of phone hacking emerged. In 2007, a News of the World editor and a private investigator received prison sentences for hacking phones belonging to aides of the royal family.

'Too Difficult to Progress'

In recent years celebrities and politicians have also accused the paper of hacking into their phones, but in recent days it also emerged that journalists from the newspaper had also allegedly targeted phones belonging to families of abducted children, relatives of victims of the July 7, 2005 London terror attacks, relatives of British soldiers who had died in Afghanistan and perhaps even family members of British Sept. 11 victims.

Police are investigating both these allegations and others that include reports that News of the World bribed police officers for information.

Murdoch's News Corp. responded to the scandal by shutting down the 168-year-old weekly paper, running the final issue on July 10. But politicians still demanded that the company withdraw its multi-billion pound bid to take on the 61 percent of the BSkyB shares the company doesn't already possess, the success of which would have increased its already substantial share in the country's media market. Despite Murdoch's decision to fly to London and personally work on the bid, mounting pressure on News Corp. forced deputy chairman and president Chase Carey to announce it had become "too difficult to progress in this climate" on Wednesday.

The government motion to reject the bid signalled a political rebellion against the Murdoch press, which has wielded impressive influence over party members' reputations and election results for some three decades. But there are indications that the scandal could extend into government ranks after the Friday arrest of Prime Minister Cameron's former communications chief, Andy Coulson, who is also former editor in chief of News of the World.

The spiralling scandal has prompted serious debate about the relationship between the government and the press. Some government officials are even likely to be called as witnesses in the investigation. "The terrible revelations of the last week have shaken us all," said Labour Party leader Ed Miliband on Wednesday. "The events of the last seven days have opened all our eyes and given us the chance to say: It doesn't have to be like this."

On Thursday Germany's papers weighed in on the state of the press and democracy in the UK with limited optimism.

Conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"There is more rotten in the state of Great Britain than is dreamt of in our philosophy. And more than just in the media, whose reputation has sunk to an all-time low through the revelations about the Sunday scandal paper News of the World. But this is about more than that. The complicity of some Scotland Yard officials with the surveillance methods of the Murdoch empire are also damaging trust in the country's law enforcement."

"For its part, the political world is determined to clear out the Augean stable, for which it was also responsible through many years of submitting to Murdoch. It's open season on the exposed media mogul."

"It's a nation under shock. Too much institutional erosion was simply ignored. The exalted press has long been playing Shakespeare -- in the duel between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, or other plays on politicians on their way to power. It was all big theatrics … High drama and low-brow thrills while the representative democracy napped and a powerful media company cast itself as the impresario of events. We are far from the end of the story."

Left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung writes:

"It's common knowledge that British politicians kowtow to the tabloid press. But that the police were also serving these papers gives the News of the World hacking scandal a new dimension. This isn't about small-time officers locating celebrity mobile phones and betraying the phone numbers of the royal family for reporters at Murdoch's big papers. The country's top police officials suppressed evidence they've had since 2005 and hindered investigations."

"Their excuse -- that Rupert Murdoch's company News International (a subsidiary of his News Corporation) was uncooperative -- is a declaration of bankruptcy. Of course those guilty of crimes aren't eager to help the police."

"The News of the World case has shown the British public that their democracy is a farce, with power-hungry politicians who bow to the most loathsome tabloids and money-grubbing police who hide the crimes of these papers. The investigations that Prime Minister Cameron has called for make sense only when they include all sides and lead to consequences. Most of the investigations to date … give no cause for optimism."

Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel writes:

"Murdoch retracted his bid with the knowledge that even Tory Prime Minister David Cameron had withdrawn his support. But the Melbourne-born Keith Rupert Murdoch is a fighter, a warrior. To prove just how important press freedom is to him over any press organ itself, he ruthlessly shut down News of the World ... His company News Corp. will easily get over the lost profits -- in 2010 it had an operating profit of some €2.8 billion. And BSkyB will remain on the shopping list, no matter the day or year. It's taken decades for Murdoch to amass a global media empire. He owns film studio 20th Century Fox, TV station group Fox, newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, magazines and publishers. In the US, Australia and Great Britain the conservative has enormous influence on public opinion."

"He doesn't want to be part of politics, but instead to serve his market interests with politics -- chameleon of power that he is. Above all, it is the aggressive journalism like that of London's News of the World and US station Fox that drives conditions, quotas and profits. Because for Murdoch the creation of content is just as important as exploiting it."

-- Kristen Allen

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