July 7, 2011
Murdoch to Close Tabloid Amid Fury Over Hacking
By SARAH LYALL and BRIAN STELTER
LONDON — The media titan Rupert Murdoch sought to stanch damage from a deepening phone hacking scandal Thursday by sacrificing the mass-circulation British tabloid The News of the World in a bid to protect his News Corporation empire. . The saga turned yet more disturbing Thursday on suggestions that targets included not only a 13-year-old murder victim but also relatives of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that the paper had also paid tens of thousands of dollars in police bribes for information. The scandal had been taking a toll on the News Corporation, with stock prices falling, some advertisers fleeing The News of the World, and new doubts emerging about Mr. Murdoch’s proposed $12 billion takeover of the pay-television company British Sky Broadcasting, in which he already owns a large stake. Many legislators have now criticized the deal and any government decision appears unlikely to be made before the end of the summer.
The Times of London, itself a News Corporation newspaper, said five journalists and the newspaper executives suspected of involvement in the scandal were expected to be arrested within days.
The move to close The News of the World was also seen by media analysts as a potentially shrewd decision to jettison a newspaper where revenues had been declining in order to preserve the more lucrative broadcasting deal and possibly expand its other tabloid, The Sun, to publish seven days a week.
The announcement came from Mr. Murdoch’s son and likely heir apparent, James, in a broad and apologetic statement delivered so suddenly that The News of the World was still advertising a subscription deal on its Web site.
“Wrongdoers turned a good newsroom bad and this was not fully understood or adequately pursued,” he said, admitting that the paper and its British parent, News International, had “failed to get to the bottom of repeated wrongdoing that occurred without conscience or legitimate purpose,” despite a police investigation in 2006 that sent two men to jail.
As a result, he said, the paper and company “wrongly maintained that these issues were confined to one reporter. We have now voluntarily given evidence to the police that I believe will prove that this was untrue and those who acted wrongly will have to face the consequences.” The announcement raised immediate speculation that The Sun, another News International paper, might begin publishing on Sundays. Company executives had discussed earlier this year whether to merge some of the two papers’ operations as a way to save money, and the domain name thesunonsunday.co.uk was registered on Tuesday.
When asked about the possibility, a News International spokeswoman said, “There is no comment beyond the statement today which does not mention any future plans.” Other Murdoch holdings in Britain include The Sunday Times of London and SkyNews.
In an on-camera interview with the BBC, James Murdoch said the paper was being shut down because “we fundamentally breached a trust with our readers.” He defended News International’s embattled chief, Rebekah Brooks, saying he was convinced that her leadership was “the right thing” for the company and “absolutely crucial right now.”
On Wednesday, Rupert Murdoch made his first direct public comment on the phone hacking scandal, fiercely defending Ms. Brooks from accusations over serious phone hacking cases while she was editor at The News of the World and saying the company would continue cooperating with the police “under Rebekah Brooks’s leadership.”
The leader of the opposition Labour Party, Ed Miliband, told the BBC that the closing of the paper was a defensive move on the part of News International, “a concession to members of the public up and down the country who have been appalled by what has happened.” But he said that only Ms. Brooks’s resignation would show that the organization was taking responsibility for its actions.
“Some people are losing their jobs, but one person who is keeping her job is the person who was editor of The News of the World at the time of the Milly Dowler episode,” Mr. Miliband said, referring to the case of the 13-year-old murder victim. On Monday, lawyers for her family said the paper hacked her phone after she was abducted in 2002, deleting some messages to make room for more in a move that confused police investigators and created false hope that she might still be alive. Her killer remained at large for years, killing two more young women before being captured, and was convicted in all three deaths; the verdict in Ms. Dowler’s case came only last month.
Ms. Brooks was the paper’s editor during the Dowler case, and was promoted from there to The Sun before taking over News International.
On Wednesday, a member of Parliament also raised allegations that nine years ago, The News of the World had participated in efforts to disrupt a murder investigation, as the members collectively turned on Mr. Murdoch, t tabloid culture he represents, using a debate about the widening phone hacking scandal to denounce reporting tactics by newspapers once seen as too politically influential to challenge.
In the statement on the decision to close the paper, James Murdoch said that the paper’s proud 168-year history had been “sullied by behavior that was wrong,” adding, “indeed, if recent allegations are true, it was inhuman and has no place in our Company.”
He explained the out-of-court settlements he had approved to people affected by the phone hacking as having been made without a “complete picture.” “This was wrong and is a matter of serious regret,” he said.
The final edition of the newspaper, he said, would include no advertising, except those for causes and charities “that wish to expose their good works to our millions of readers.”
Furthermore, the circulation revenue for the final edition will “go to good causes,” he said.
The office of Prime Minister David Cameron, whose Conservative Party benefits from Mr. Murdoch’s support, said it had nothing to do with the decision to close the paper.
Reporters and editors at The News of the World said they learned of the closing abruptly via an e-mail from James Murdoch and an announcement in the newsroom from Ms. Brooks.
They said they felt that they had been made scapegoats for events that had happened before they worked at the paper, and that they had been sacrificed to save the job of Ms. Brooks, a favorite of Mr. Murdoch.
“The staff at The News of the World have lost their jobs to save one person and her £2.5 million job,” said one reporter at the paper, referring to Ms. Brooks. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to harm future job prospects.
“If she had gone at the start of the week, we’d all still be employed,” the reporter said. “I hope she’s worth it for Rupert.”
On Wednesday, a Labour member of Parliament made another startling assertion: that while Ms. Brooks was the News of the World editor, she was confronted with evidence that the paper was using unlawful means to interrupt a murder investigation whose two main suspects had ties to the paper.
The member, Tom Watson, said that senior Scotland Yard officials met with Ms. Brooks in 2002 to alert her of evidence that members of her staff were “guilty of interference and party to using unlawful means to attempt to discredit a police officer and his wife,” so that the officer would be unable to complete a murder investigation. Mr. Watson said the police officials named a senior News of the World executive, Alex Muranchak.
On Thursday, The Guardian reported that Mr. Muranchak had apparently agreed to allow the two murder suspects in the case to use photographers and vans leased to the paper to spy on Detective Chief Superintendent David Cook, the lead detective.
The two men, private investigators named Jonathan Rees and Sid Fillery, were suspected of murdering their former partner, Daniel Morgan, who had been killed 15 years earlier. Their singling out of Mr. Cook included following him, his wife, and their children, trying to gain access to his and his wife’s voice mail and obtaining personal details about him from police databases.
Those details were found in the notes of Glenn Mulcaire, an investigator working for The News of the World whose notebooks were seized by the police and have formed the basis for much of the current criminal investigation into phone hacking.
The Guardian reported that Scotland Yard took no action against The News of the World in the case, because its head of media relations, Dick Fedorcio, had a good relationship with Ms. Brooks and wanted “to avoid unnecessary friction with The News of the World.”
On Thursday, after The Daily Telegraph said a private detective working for The News of the World may have hacked into the phones of bereaved families after they were informed of the death of relatives serving with the British Army in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Royal British Legion, a veterans’ organization, said that it had dropped the newspaper as its partner in a campaign for improved service conditions. The group said that “bereaved military families expressed revulsion at the latest phone hacking revelations.”
“We can’t with any conscience campaign alongside News of the World on behalf of Armed Forces families while it stands accused of preying on these same families in the lowest depths of their misery,” the group said on its Web site. “The hacking allegations have shocked us to the core.”
Sarah Lyall reported from London, and Brian Stelter from New York. Reporting was contributed by Alan Cowell from Paris, Eric Pfanner and Ravi Somaiya from London, and Jeremy W. Peters from New York.