Leader: For too long, public figures have lived in fear of Murdoch

Almost everybody of importance has been seduced by News Corp in some fashion.

In her 2009 Cudlipp Lecture, Rebekah Brooks, then editor of the Sun (and then known as Rebekah Wade), accused upmarket newspapers that questioned her campaigns -- including one to "name and shame" paedophiles and another to sack Haringey Council officials allegedly responsible for the death of Baby Peter -- of showing "total disregard and disrespect for public opinion". She quoted a Sun reader who had written in to say that the tabloid press prizes "morality over political correctness".

Now, the hypocrisy behind moralising tabloid journalism has been exposed as never before. In 2002, when 13-year-old Milly Dowler disappeared, private investigators working for the News of the World (NoW), edited at the time by Ms Brooks, allegedly hacked into the girl's mobile phone and deleted voicemail messages. They gave her parents false hope that she was alive and hindered the police investigation.

The repeated refusal by Ms Brooks, now chief executive of Rupert Murdoch's News International, to resign over the affair shows, to use her own words, "total . . . disrespect for public opinion".

Phone-hacking, however, is not just about a rogue executive, any more than it was just about a "rogue reporter" four years ago, when the NoW's Clive Goodman went to prison after hacking the phones of royal aides. The issue concerns the intimate relationship between one media corporation and the British state. Why have politicians been so reluctant, until the latest revelations, to criticise criminality at News International? Why did David Cameron keep Andy Coulson in his job as Downing Street communications director until less than six months ago? Mr Coulson, alleged this month to have paid police for information while NoW editor, was appointed to his post after he resigned from the paper because phone-hacking had happened on his watch.

Why, until now, have most national newspapers ignored the story? Why has the Press Complaints Commission, so assiduous in protecting royal privacy, not taken more decisive action on the wider scandal? Why has the Met been so slow to investigate? The answer is many prominent figures in British society live in terror of Mr Murdoch. It is not just concern about how the Sun and NoW can influence opinion, but also the fear that, if they cross News International, its papers might unearth some fragment of their private lives and use it to discredit and embarrass them. Moreover, the tentacles of News Corp reach so deeply into national life that almost everybody of importance has been seduced in some fashion.

This is the result of allowing one corporation to control almost 40 per cent of newspaper circulation. In considering whether Mr Murdoch should be allowed fully to take over the satellite broadcasting company BSkyB, the government was right to exclude the question of whether News Corporation was "a fit and proper" owner.

This is not about Mr Murdoch's personal record but about the lack of plurality. Companies in near-monopoly positions can often come to regard themselves as above the law and some believe that, when they break rules, they can square the relevant authorities. If legislation cannot guard against such dangers, the law urgently needs to change.