Ian Burrell: How times have changed at the court of the all-seeing Sun King

Since the New Year, Murdoch has seemed more interested in Twitter than his newspapers

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Andrew Neil, when he looked back on his time as editor of Rupert Murdoch's Sunday Times, compared his role to that of a courtier of an all-seeing monarch whom he called the "Sun King".

"When you work for Rupert Murdoch," he wrote, "you are a courtier at the court of the Sun King – rewarded with money and status by a grateful king as long as you serve his purpose... All life revolves around the Sun King. All authority comes from him... the Sun King is everywhere even when he is nowhere."

These royal sunbeams shone on every corner of the empire, and the King's subjects depended on the rays to give them life. But no more, apparently. Yesterday at the Leveson Inquiry, two of Murdoch's most senior editors described a relationship somewhat different from that experienced by Neil.

The current Sunday Times editor John Witherow was asked what influence the Sun King had over the newspaper he has edited for 17 years. "He doesn't have any," he responded. "I think you'll discover that the Sunday Times has a robustly independent line on political allegiance."

He might not speak to Murdoch for weeks at a time and even then the subject matter was "general", he said. James Harding, editor of The Times, spoke of a similar experience, saying he often went weeks without contact with the proprietor.

Earlier in the inquiry, the former editor of The Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, described his close relationship with Mr Murdoch who, while not putting him under commercial pressure, used to take a close interest in the paper's content and once treated him to a 40-minute tirade of abuse for publishing a libellous story.

But the revelations of last year have made it a "humbling" time for 80-year-old Murdoch, and since the New Year he has seemed more preoccupied with his new Twitter account than with his newspapers.

The damage to News Corp's international reputation caused by the phone-hacking scandal has prompted speculation that the company might pull out of the British press altogether. One way or another, it feels like dusk is drawing in at the court of the Sun King.

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