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Murdoch on hot seat for U.K. clout

He was long considered one of the most important power brokers in British politics. Now, with his influence shriveled by Britain's phone-hacking scandal, media magnate Rupert Murdoch is returning to the United Kingdom to face questions about his ties to the country's most senior politicians.

It could be an uncomfortable few days for Britain's ruling class.

Murdoch is "not somebody you'd like to get into a battle with," said Steven Fielding, director of the Center for British Politics at the University of Nottingham. "I don't think he thinks that he has very much to lose."

The communications titan's appearance before Lord Justice Brian Leveson's inquiry this week is expected to focus on the network of personal and professional ties that have bound his newspaper and television operations to some of the most senior politicians in the U.K.

Those ties have frequently come under criticism, with many observers saying British politicians were scared of crossing Murdoch because of his company's domination of the British media landscape.

The Australian's relationship with British leaders blossomed in the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher's government rubber-stamped Murdoch's bid for the Times of London after a secret meeting at the prime minister's country retreat.

It strengthened in the 1990s and 2000s, when Murdoch was assiduously courted by Prime Minister Tony Blair. Current Prime Minister David Cameron, meanwhile, drafted former Murdoch lieutenant Andy Coulson to be his chief media aide.

So frequently did Murdoch meet with British prime ministers that he joked last year, "I wish they would leave me alone."

The Murdoch empire's British connections had a strikingly personal tone. Blair became the godfather of Murdoch's second-youngest child. Cameron, whose Oxfordshire home is practically next door to that of Murdoch protege Rebekah Brooks and her, husband Charlie, used to regularly ride the couple's horses.

But those intimate ties have frayed and snapped since revelations last year that journalists at Murdoch's News of the World tabloid routinely intercepted voice-mail messages of those in the public eye.

Coulson and Brooks both resigned before being arrested as two of the scandal's leading suspects, and Murdoch and his media executive son, James, have swapped discreet visits to No. 10 Downing Street with confrontational appearances before skeptical lawmakers.

Once eager to secure Rupert Murdoch's blessing, Cameron has since ordered the inquiry that is calling him and his son in for at least two full days of testimony starting Tuesday.

Although James Murdoch has largely kept his cool, his father has already begun to rattle the cages -- taking to Twitter to blast the politicians who have turned their backs on him.

Observers may also want to take note of the action occurring behind the scenes.

Police and prosecutors are considering the first batch of charges against those involved in the scandal, which may come in the second half of May, according to two people briefed on their progress.

And lawmakers on Parliament's media committee are putting the final touches on their report on the phone-hacking scandal. The document is expected either to blast James Murdoch for failing to get a grip on the scandal or excoriate his lieutenants for keeping the 39-year-old executive in the dark.

Lawmaker Paul Farrelly has said that the report -- which has been delayed for months -- is tentatively due May 1.