LONDON (Reuters) - Rupert Murdoch was set to fly to London to tackle a scandal engulfing his media empire while journalists prepared the last edition of the best-selling Sunday paper they say he has sacrificed to protect plans to expand his television business.
Meanwhile British Prime Minister David Cameron came under pressure to speed up an inquiry into the allegations of widespread voicemail-hacking, which could jeopardize News Corp’s plan to take over the British broadcaster BSkyB.
The scandal has raised questions about relations between politicians, including Cameron — who hired a former editor of the paper as his spin doctor — and powerful media owners such as Murdoch, 80.
It has also brought to light accusations that journalists working for Murdoch and others paid police for information.
The front-page headline on Sunday’s final edition of the 168-year-old News of the World, best known for its lurid stories of wrongdoing and the sexual misdemeanors of celebrities, said simply “Thank You & Goodbye.”
Alan Rusbridger, editor of the left-leaning Guardian newspaper, which has led the way in uncovering the scandal, said in a video on the Guardian’s web page:
“We’ve had both the prime minister and the leader of the opposition making the kind of statements that a week ago would have seemed suicidal for politicians, essentially conceding they had turned a blind eye to the abuse of press power because they wanted to keep in with RupertMurdoch.”
Murdoch, who made the News of the World his first British newspaper acquisition in 1969, told Reuters he expected to leave for London on Saturday afternoon or Sunday and was not planning any management changes as a result of the crisis.
“We’ve been let down by people that we trusted, with the result the paper let down its readers,” the News Corp chief executive said as he left a media conference in Idaho. He earlier said closing the paper was a “collective decision.”
News Corp, whose shares fell more than 5 percent in New York last week, declined to comment on Murdoch’s agenda while in London.
Neither Cameron’s Downing Street office nor the Department for Culture, Media and Sport plan to speak to him during the visit, spokespeople said. Police declined to comment on whether they would try to speak to him.
Analyst Claire Enders said News Corp was vulnerable. “As a business crisis, it is immense,” she told Reuters.
Cameron’s opponents have scented an opportunity in their efforts to block Murdoch’s $14 billion bid for the 61 percent of the broadcaster BSkyB that News Corp does not already own on the grounds it would give him too much political clout.
Allegations that senior editors were involved in illegally accessing thousands of voicemail messages, and paying police for information, to get scoops, have now prompted many to ask whether Murdoch’s group is a “fit and proper” owner for BSkyB.
Cameron indicated a new assertiveness toward the Murdoch empire by withholding overt endorsement of News Corp’s bid for BSkyB on Friday.
After years of allegations about hacking the voicemail of celebrities and politicians, the scandal reached a tipping point this week when it was alleged that in 2002 the paper had listened to the voicemail of Milly Dowler, a missing schoolgirl who was later found murdered, and even deleted some of her messages to make room for more.
That claim, and allegations that a growing list of victims included relatives of Britain’s war dead and of those killed in the 2005 London transport bombings, outraged readers and caused many firms to pull advertising.
News International chief Rebekah Brooks, 43, indicated that more revelations may emerge in comments to News of the World staff on Friday, a day after telling them the 168-year-old newspaper had become “toxic” and would be shut.
“Eventually it will come out why things went wrong and who is responsible. That will be another very difficult moment in this company’s history,” Brooks said on Friday, according to a recording carried by Sky News.
Murdoch has brushed off calls for Brooks to resign due to her editorship of News of the World at a time when many of the alleged hacking incidents were taking place.
She denies knowing of the practice during her watch on the paper, which commands Britain’s highest Sunday readership with its gossip pages, campaigns and photos of scantily clad women.
He said on Saturday she had his “total” support. “I’m not throwing innocent people under the bus,” Murdoch added.
Asked if he planned any management shifts, such as changing the responsibilities for son and heir apparent James Murdoch, he said “No.” “Nothing’s changed,” he told reporters.
Cameron, a friend and neighbor of Brooks, joined calls for her to step down on Friday at a news conference where he admitted that politicians had been in thrall to media for years, and ordered a public inquiry.
The prime minister’s close links with those at the heart of the scandal mean he too has been damaged by it but analysts say that, with probably nearly four years until a parliamentary election, he is unlikely to be sunk by it.
The Guardian said police were investigating evidence that a News International executive may have deleted millions of emails from an internal archive in an attempt to hamper investigations.
The News International spokeswoman said the allegation was “rubbish,” adding: “We are cooperating actively with police and have not destroyed evidence.”
Journalists working on Sunday’s last edition of the News of the World, with a splash of previous cover stories topped with the headline “Thank You & Goodbye,” said they had been made scapegoats to protect News Corp’s expansion in television.
“There are 280 journalists there who have absolutely nothing to do with the things that may have gone on many, many years in the past,” chief subeditor Alan Edwards told the BBC.
Reporters said it would print 5 million copies, 2 million more than normal, and the profits would go to charity.
British police on Friday arrested Andy Coulson, the former spokesman for Cameron who had resigned as News of the World editor in 2007 after one of his reporters and a private investigator were convicted of hacking into the phones of aides to the royal family.
Coulson has also said he knew nothing about the phone hacking.
A spokesman for Cameron said he was moving as quickly as possible on the inquiry. “We have already approached the Lord Chief Justice, who will propose the judge,” the spokesman said.
Additional reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta, Kate Holton, Georgina Prodhan, Jodie Ginsberg in London and Sarah McBride in Sun Valley, Idaho; Writing by Philippa Fletcher and Alison Williams; Editing by Kevin Liffey