LONDON (AP) — With the last edition of Britain’s News of the World tabloid in hand, Rupert Murdoch descended on the U.K. Sunday to face the growing phone-hacking scandal that prompted the paper’s closure.
TV footage showed the News Corp. CEO being driven into the east London offices of his U.K. newspaper division, News International. The 80-year-old Murdoch was seated in the front passenger seat of a red Range Rover with a copy of the last issue of the best-selling Sunday tabloid in his hands.
Britons, too, were snapping up the last edition of the News of the World, after the 168-year-old muckraking paper was brought down in a phone-hacking scandal.
The 8,674th edition apologizes for letting the paper’s readers down, but stops short of acknowledging recent allegations that its journalists paid police for information.
“We praised high standards, we demanded high standards but, as we are now only too painfully aware, for a period of a few years up to 2006 some who worked for us, or in our name, fell shamefully short of those standards,” read a full-page editorial in the paper. “Quite simply, we lost our way. Phones were hacked, and for that this newspaper is truly sorry.”
Allegations the paper’s journalists paid police for information and hacked into the voicemails of young murder victims and the grieving families of dead soldiers prompted Murdoch’s News International to shut down the tabloid.
The developments have turned up the heat on Britain’s media industry amid concerns a police investigation won’t stop with the News of the World, and cast new scrutiny on the cozy relationship between British politicians and the tabloid press.
Murdoch, who has long been considered a kingmaker in the British media establishment, is facing a maelstrom of criticism and outrage not just over the new allegations of impropriety at his tabloid, but also the decision to shut the paper and put 200 journalists out of work.
News International declined to comment on Murdoch’s movements or plans while in the U.K.
Closing down the News of the World, which was launched Oct. 1, 1843, was seen by some as a desperate attempt by the media conglomerate to stem negative fallout and thus save its 12 billion-pound ($19 billion) deal to take over satellite broadcaster British Sky Broadcasting.
The British government has signaled that deal will be delayed because of the crisis, and the scandal has continued to unfold at breakneck pace in the media, prompting broader questions about corruption at the newspaper and media regulation in the U.K.
Soul-searching has extended to the highest levels of government, with Prime Minister David Cameron conceding politicians developed too cozy a relationship with the tabloid press. Cameron’s former communications chief, Andy Coulson, is an ex-editor of the News of the World and was one of three men arrested this week as part of a police investigation into the phone-hacking and corruption allegations.
Cameron has called for a new media regulation system and pledged a public inquiry into what went wrong; the head of Murdoch’s U.K. newspaper operations has hinted that more revelations are to come.
As the News of the World’s final issue went to press, Assistant Police Commissioner John Yates expressed his “extreme regret” that he did not act to reopen police inquiries into phone hacking two years ago. In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, he said “it’s clear I could have done more.”
On Sunday, opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband warned that a Murdoch takeover of BSkyB should not be allowed while the phone-hacking investigation is ongoing.
“When the public have seen the disgusting revelations that we have seen this week, the idea that this organization, which engaged in these terrible practices, should be allowed to take over BSkyB, to get that 100 percent stake, without the criminal investigation having been completed…frankly that just won’t wash with the public,” he told the BBC.
Buying the News of the World in 1969 gave the Australian-born Murdoch his first foothold in Britain’s media. He went on to snap up several other titles, gaining almost unparalleled influence in British politics through the far-reaching power of his papers’ headlines.
Murdoch has opted to remain largely silent amid the fallout, issuing one official statement describing the allegations as “deplorable and unacceptable.”
Many journalists and media watchers have expressed astonishment that Rebekah Brooks, who was editor of News of the World when some of the hacking allegedly occurred, was keeping her job as head of News Corp.’s U.K. newspaper operations while the paper’s employees were laid off.
Murdoch on Saturday told reporters in Sun Valley, Idaho, that Brooks had his “total” support.
The scandal exploded this week after it was reported that the News of the World had hacked the mobile phone of 13-year-old murder victim Milly Dowler in 2002 while her family and police were desperately searching for her. News of the World operatives reportedly deleted some messages from the phone’s voicemail, giving the girl’s parents false hope that she was still alive.
Brooks told lawmakers she had “no knowledge whatsoever” of the Milly Dowler hacking or any other case while she was editor, according to a letter published by Britain’s home affairs select committee on Saturday.
The News of the World’s last edition contained a 48-page souvenir pullout section highlighting the paper’s scoops and its coverage of big moments in history. Despite the recent scandal, many viewed the paper as a force for good, exposing numerous political, celebrity and sports scandals.
The paper has been praised for its role in getting a sex offender law passed in Britain. “Sarah’s Law” was named after 8-year-old British girl Sarah Payne, murdered in 2000 by a pedophile. It is modeled on “Megan’s Law,” the U.S. legislation named for Megan Kanka, a New Jersey child murdered by a repeat sex offender.
The last edition’s back page had 1946 quotes from British author George Orwell, an admirer of the paper.
“You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose and open the News of the World,” Orwell said.
The back page also had quotes running beside Orwell’s from Jeannie Hobson, a loyal reader from Lymington, England, which read as an epitaph.
“I cannot imagine Sundays without you,” the 68-year-old Hobson said. “I will always remember the News of the World for the good things you have brought to light. I’m sad to say goodbye to my Sunday favorite.”
Cassandra Vinograd can be reached at http://twitter.com/CassVinograd