LONDON (Reuters) - Media baron Rupert Murdoch flew into London on Sunday to tackle a phone-hacking scandal that has sent tremors through the British political establishment and may cost him a multi-billion dollar broadcasting deal.
Murdoch, 80, swept into his London headquarters in the front passenger seat of a car, holding up the final edition of the best-selling News of the World, the newspaper he bought in 1969 that became the foundation stone of his international media empire, which he closed last week in a bid to stem the crisis.
Murdoch later travelled across the city to his London home where he was joined by his embattled newspaper group chief executive Rebekah Brooks, and then crossed the road to a hotel
with his arm around her. Murdoch’s son and heir apparent, James, later entered the hotel by a side door, witnesses said.
Best known for its lurid headlines exposing misadventures of the rich, royal and famous, the last News of the World said simply “Thank You & Goodbye” over a montage of some of its most celebrated splashes of the past 168 years. For admirers it had been a stock feature of lazy Sundays, for critics it had become a symbol of craven irresponsibility in the British media.
“All human life was here,” the paper declared.
Only last week, Rupert Murdoch had seemed on the point of clinching approval for a cherished prize, the buyout of broadcaster BSkyB. But revelations that phone-hacking had extended beyond celebrities to a murdered girl and to relatives of victims of the 2005 London bomb attacks and of soldiers killed in action stirred broad public anger.
Editor Colin Myler told media massed outside the newspaper’s offices: “This is not where we wanted to be and it’s not where we deserve to be, but as a final tribute to 7.5 million readers, this is for you and for the staff, thank you.”
The scandal has raised questions about relations between politicians, including Prime Minister David Cameron -- who hired the paper’s former editor Andy Coulson as his spin doctor -- and media barons such as News Corp chairman and chief executive Murdoch.
It has also brought to light accusations that journalists working for Murdoch and others illegally paid police for information. A senior officer said the London police force had been ‘very damaged’ by its failure to press an initial investigation into telephone hacking at the News of the World.
Cameron’s opponents have scented an opportunity in their efforts to block Murdoch’s $14 billion bid for the 61 percent of the profitable pay-TV operator BSkyB that News Corp, the world’s largest news conglomerate, does not already own.
Previously, those looking at whether Murdoch should get the go-ahead have focused on whether it would give him too much power over Britain’s media.
But allegations that senior editors were involved in illegally accessing thousands of voicemail messages and paying police for information to get scoops have now prompted the regulator Ofcom to say it will consider whether News Corp directors are “fit and proper” persons to run BSkyB.
The government has received more than 135,000 public complaints against the BSkyB deal.
Cameron came under growing pressure on Sunday to halt Murdoch’s bid for BSkyB, at least until an investigation into phone-hacking had been completed.
Labour opposition leader Ed Miliband said he would force the issue to a parliamentary vote this week if Cameron did not act.
“He needs to make clear that BSkyB cannot go ahead until the investigation is complete,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr.
Pressure came too from members of the government’s junior coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, who have had a less cozy relationship with Murdoch.
Deputy LibDem leader Simon Hughes said he would be prepared to back Labour’s call for the deal to be postponed and urged other LibDems to do the same -- setting the stage for a major test of the coalition’s unity.
News Corp shares fell more than 5 percent in New York last week.
“We’ve been let down by people that we trusted, with the result the paper let down its readers,” Rupert Murdoch said as he left a media conference in Idaho on Saturday.
Neither Cameron’s 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.
The prime minister’s close links with those at the heart of the scandal mean he too has been damaged by it.
On Friday police arrested Coulson, who resigned as News of the World editor in 2007 after one of his reporters and a private investigator were convicted of hacking the phones of aides to the royal family, and later became Cameron’s communications chief. Coulson has also said he knew nothing about the phone hacking.
Cameron, a friend of Brooks, joined calls for her to step down as chief executive of News Corp’s News International arm at a news conference on Friday where he admitted politicians had been in thrall to media for years, and ordered a public inquiry.
But Murdoch has stuck by Brooks. Asked in London what his first priority was, he gestured at her and said: “This one.”
Murdoch said on Saturday that Brooks, who was editor of the News of the World at a time when many of the alleged hacking incidents were taking place, had his “total” support. She denies knowing of the practice during her watch.
“I‘m not throwing innocent people under the bus,” he said.
“HACKING WAS STANDARD PRACTICE”
A senior police officer told the Sunday Telegraph that voicemail hacking had been “standard practice” at the News of the World and that its executives had failed to cooperate fully with police during an investigation in 2005-06. [nL6E7I909Q]
He said the new investigation had been prompted by “material that was completely available to them in 2005-06.”
“It makes their assurances in 2005-06 look very shaky.”
The Sunday Times said at least nine journalists and three police officers were facing possible jail sentences in connection with the scandal and quoted senior police officers as saying it was likely there would be further arrests soon.
Some 200 jobs will be lost at the News of the World.
At London Bridge railway station, copies of the last edition were selling well, said newspaper vendor Jean Natella.
“I think it’s a shame because they’ve done a lot of good, they’ve riddled out a lot of, let’s say, nasty people,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that a few people have brought it down. But they have got no choice because they condemned others so they have got to show they are accountable.”
Others were less charitable.
“The spectre of the old Murdoch, the one whose demise was signaled last week -- powerful, voracious and threatening -- must not be allowed to rise again from the ashes of the News of the World,” said an editorial in the Observer, a rival weekly.
The Guardian newspaper said on Saturday that police were investigating claims that a News International executive may have deleted millions of emails from an internal archive in an attempt to hamper investigations.
A News International spokeswoman said the allegation was “rubbish”: “We are cooperating actively with police and have not destroyed evidence.”
Additional reporting by Olesya Dmitracova, Jodie Ginsberg, Christina Fincher, Sarah McBride, Sudip Kar-Gupta, Paul Sandle; Writing by Alison Williams; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Janet Lawrence