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50 People Who Matter 2010 | 1. Rupert Murdoch

Sky Lord.

The rise of Margaret Thatcher, the rise and fall of New Labour, public hostility to the EU: the Murdoch empire has long played a major role in British politics.

Now the Murdoch influence is evident in the US, too. Rupert Murdoch's Fox News has become the leading cable news channel, its viewing figures exceeding those of its rivals CNN and MSNBC combined. According to one poll, the notoriously right-wing Fox is America's most trusted TV news outlet. Two-thirds of Tea Party supporters get their current affairs from Fox.

The controversy over plans to build a mosque (which isn't actually a mosque) close to "Ground Zero" was almost entirely created by Fox and Murdoch's US paper, the New York Post. Murdoch dithered over the 2008 presidential election, eventually backing John McCain. Now, more decisively, he has donated $1m to the Republican Governors Association. If right-wing Republicans do well in the midterm elections - and overthrow President Obama in 2012 - they will owe much to Fox News and Murdoch.

Could the Murdoch-owned Sky News become the British Fox, escaping regulations that require balance? BSkyB, the parent company, is now second only to the BBC - which ministers seem determined to downsize - in the British TV industry. It reaches more than ten million homes, makes profits of £500m a year and spends more on marketing than ITV does on programming.

James Murdoch, head of News Corporation Europe and Asia, has assured ministers that he and his father will not alter Sky News content. But the Murdochs' efforts to buy the 61 per cent of BSkyB they don't already own could allow them to redirect the channel. They could also combine satellite, newspaper and website subscriptions, making sense of their decision to put the online Times and Sunday Times behind a paywall. Newspapers might not directly influence votes, but they still make the political weather. David Cameron is unlikely to stand in their way.

Despite the sale of three Chinese TV channels, the Murdochs continue to spread their influence. Star India grows aggressively. News Corp has taken a stake in Rotana, one of the Arab world's biggest media companies. And the greatest prize of all remains within Murdoch's reach - toppling the New York Times as the leading US paper with the acquisition of the Wall Street Journal. Just possibly, the cash-strapped NY Times itself could fall into his hands.

Yet Murdoch may come to regret making such a powerful enemy. With the assistance of the NY Times, the claim that illegal phone-hacking was endemic at the Murdoch-owned News of the World refuses to go away. So far, the allegations have failed to implicate the former NoW editor Andy Coulson. But could they go higher, Watergate-style? At the very least, if the hundreds of alleged victims sue for breach of privacy, it could cost the company millions.

Next: 2. Barack Obama

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Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 27 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter

The Prime Minister still has questions to answer about his plans for Syria

Cameron needs a better plan for Syria than mere party-politicking, says Ian Lucas.

I was unfortunate enough to hear our Prime Minister discussing the vexed issue of military action in Syria on the Today programme yesterday. It was a shocking experience - David Cameron simply cannot resist trying to take party political advantage of an extremely serious crisis. It is quite clear that there are massive humanitarian, military and political issues at stake in Syria. A number of international and national powers including the United States and Russia are taking military action within Syria and David Cameron said in the broadest terms that he thought that the UK should do so too.

The questions then arise - what should we do, and why should we do it?

Let me make it clear that I do believe there are circumstances in which we should take military action - to assist in issues which either affect this country's national interest and defence, or which are so serious as to justify immediate action on humanitarian grounds. It is for the Prime Minister, if he believes that such circumstances are in place, to make the case.

The Prime Minister was severely shaken by the vote of the House of Commons to reject military action against President Assad in 2013. This was a military course which was decided upon in a very short time scale, in discussion with allies including France and the United States.

As we all know, Parliament, led by Ed Miliband’s Labour Opposition and supported by a significant number of Conservative MPs, voted against the Government’s proposals. David Cameron's reaction to that vote was one of immediate petulance. He ruled out military action, actually going beyond the position of most of his opponents. The proposed action against Assad action was stressed at the time by President Obama to be very limited in scope and directed specifically against the use of chemical weapons. It was not intended to lead to the political end of President Assad and no argument was made by the governments either in the United States or in the UK that this was an aim. What was proposed was short, sharp military action to deal specifically with the threat of chemical weapons. Following the vote in the House of Commons, there was an immediate reaction from both United States and France. I was an Opposition spokesman at the time, and at the beginning of the week, when the vote was taken, France was very strident in its support for military action. The House of Commons vote changed the position immediately and the language that was used by President Obama, by John Kerry and others .

The chemical weapons threat was the focus of negotiation and agreement, involving Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and his connections with Syria.  The result was that Assad agreed to dispense with chemical weapons on a consensual basis and no military action took place.

David Cameron felt humiliated by this outcome and loses no opportunity to suggest that the decision was wrong.  He is determined that he should revisit the issue of bombing in Syria, though now action there has elided to action against Islamic State. He has delegated Michael Fallon to prepare the ground for a vote on military action in Parliament. Fallon is the most political of Defence Secretaries - before he became a minister he was regularly presented by the Conservative party as its attack dog against Labour. He gives me the impression of putting the Conservative Party’s interest, at all times, above the national interest. Nothing in his tenure at Defence has changed my view of him.

I was therefore very sceptical what when, in September, Fallon suggested that there should be briefings of members of Parliament to inform us of the latest position on Syria. It turns out that I was right - at the Conservative party conference, Mr Fallon has been referring to these briefings as part of the process that is changing minds in the House of Commons towards taking military action in Syria. He is doubtless taking his orders from the Prime Minister, who is determined to have a vote on taking part in military action in Syria, this time against Islamic State.  

If the Prime Minister wishes to have the support of the House of Commons for military action he needs to answer the following questions: 

What is the nature of the action that he proposes?

What additional impact would action by the UK have, above and beyond that undertaken by the United States and France?

What is the difference in principle between military action in Syria by the UK and military action in Syria by Russia?

What would be the humanitarian impact of such action?

What political steps would follow action and what political strategy does the government have to resolve the Syrian crisis?

The reality is that the United States, UK, France and other western powers have been hamstrung on Syria by their insistence Assad should go. This situation has continued for four years now and there is no end in sight.

The Prime Minister and his Defence Secretary have yet to convince me that additional military action in Syria, this time by the United Kingdom, would help to end Syria's agony and stem the human tragedy that is the refugee crisis engulfing the region and beyond. If the Prime Minister wishes to have support from across the House of Commons, he should start behaving like the Prime Minister of a nation with responsibilities on the United Nations Security Council and stop behaving like a party politician who seeks to extract political advantage from the most serious of international situations.

Ian Lucas is the Labour MP for Wrexham.