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It's the Beginning of the End for Rupert Murdoch

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Murdoch's empire is, as empires must, beginning to crumble.

For a media Midas who, for so long, seemed infallible, a master of manipulation, the ends are unravelling with startling speed.

The mistakes and misdemeanours were, of course, reprehensible.

From Milly Dowler to 9/11, the News of the World's alleged victims could not be more emotive.

And from the Guardian to the FBI, his assailants could not be more deadly.

But we had all expected Rupert Murdoch - that gnarly cove - to weather the storm.

The very fact that he and his generals have so woefully mismanaged the aftermath of the hacking scandal is surely a major factor in its very occurrence.

It is hard to imagine the omnipotent Murdoch of old floundering so lamely in the undertow.

He has, however, not just floundered. He has all but drowned.

Rebekah Brooks' resignation has been handled in an appallingly cack-handed fashion, coming - as it did - too late to be instinctive and honourable, yet too early to prove pugnacious and corporate.

Of course, she should have gone. But she should have gone a week ago. Having made the decision to stay, she should have fought on. When a captain has decided to cling to the wreckage, he must go with it to the bottom.

This halfway measure is just that: ill-conceived, badly realised and, ultimately, pointless. The buck does not stop here; the odds have simply been raised.

Murdoch may well have been unaware of his minions' nefarious practices but his handprints are all over this debacle. Brooks was his watch commander. He should have put her to the sword at once.

But no.

First, he vows - with cartoonish grins that turned the stomach of all who watched - to back her, seemingly above all others.

He then - in a risible attempt to appear virile and fit for purpose - arranges the most misjudged photo opportunity since Neil Kinnock fell in the sea and waved goodbye to the premiership once and for all.

An 80-year-old businessman, however sprightly, should never - if he wishes to be taken seriously - pose in a tracksuit, bare his legs or work out beside a glamorous fitness trainer young enough to be his granddaughter.

In a well-cut suit, he could have looked august and statesmanlike, a calm old head in a time of crisis.

But gurning in PE kit, he looked, instead, vain, deluded and ridiculous. A toxic joke.

Cue what his one-time Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie called the reverse ferret.

On Friday, Brooks, the networker extraordinaire, finally stood down, friendless at the last.

Today, Murdoch looks, for all his billions, depleted and isolated. Both Brooks and Andy Coulson are in very real danger of being imprisoned. Meanwhile, Les Hinton, his trusted right-hand man, has resigned.

His son James - having paid out vast sums to silence hacking victims - is terminally compromised. His elder son Lachlan, once the heir presumptive, inexplicably left the company in 2005 and is deemed incapable of returning.

Only his daughter Elisabeth, whose pithy denouncement of Brooks - [she] "f*cked the company" - at least captures public sentiment, seems to have any credible prospects of successfully taking up the reins. But she, too, has been damaged, stained by this year's £415million "nepotism" deal: Murdoch's highly questionable purchase of her media company.

To be fair, Murdoch's remorse seems genuine enough. The full-page "we are sorry" apologies rolled out on Saturday are, if surprisingly naive in tone and design, contrite and unreserved.

But it may well be too late. Readers and advertisers have deserted him. Politicians are no longer in his thrall. The police - and the FBI - are belatedly on his tail. Rivals are baying to fill the void left by the closure of the News of the World. His major shareholders are clamouring for him to turn his back on his beloved newspaper stable.

On Friday, Murdoch apologised personally to the family of Milly Dowler. He said he had let his late father - a respected newspaper man who founded the family business - down.

The situation is, however, more grave than that. News International's implosion has implicated Number Ten, cast suspicion on senior police officers, shamed a profession and disgusted the public.

Murdoch's hope that, by setting one rogue newspaper adrift, he could exorcise the rot now appears wildly mistaken. He could, if he had to, jettison his British interests. But he cannot ignore America, the home of Fox and the heart of News Corporation.

A blighted relationship can survive only if respect remains. And the fact is that we no longer respect Rupert Murdoch. He may continue to fiddle but his empire is burning.