The 168-year-old News of the World, the widest-read paper in the English-speaking world, has acknowledged that it hired “investigators” who hacked into the phone accounts of politicians, celebrities and ordinary Britons in an attempt to develop stories. The targets of the paper’s hacking apparently included the families of British troops killed in Afghanistan, victims of the 2005 London transit bombings and a 13-year-old missing girl who was later found dead.
Murdoch, 80, has weathered criticism and crises before, most notably the near-bankruptcy of News Corp. in 1990. But the phone-hacking scandal is easily the most dire public-relations debacle of the Australian-turned-American’s storied business career.
Public outrage over the phone tapping has led to rare condemnation of Murdoch in the British Parliament and even from Prime Minister David Cameron, who has enjoyed Murdoch’s political support. Because of his outsize role in the U.K. media, Murdoch has been among the most powerful and influential forces in British politics for many years.
Although there is no evidence that Murdoch was aware of the News of the World’s illegal behavior, the scandal has shaken his dominant role in the British media establishment and has tarnished his stewardship of an empire that includes such U.S. properties as the Fox TV network, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post and the 20th Century Fox movie studio.
The scandal has also threatened to derail News Corp.’s bid to gain control of British Sky Broadcasting, the largest pay TV provider in the United Kingdom. News Corp. owns 39 percent of the satellite company and is trying to gobble up the balance in a deal worth about $12 billion. Regulatory approval of its bid is pending, and the outcome could be an indicator of public sentiment toward the newspaper’s behavior.
Some observers suggested Thursday that the scandal could affect who succeeds Murdoch at the top of his company, which he built into a colossus after inheriting two small Australian papers from his father 58 years ago. Murdoch’s heir apparent, son James, oversees the company’s British newspaper division and announced the tabloid’s demise in its London newsroom.
Many here are calling for the dismissal of Rebekah Brooks, a former News of the World editor who is chief executive of its immediate parent company, News International. Brooks was editor of the paper in 2002 when a private detective working on its behalf allegedly hacked into the voice-mail of slain teenager Milly Dowling and erased one of the messages. But both Rupert and James Murdoch have remained loyal to Brooks. “I am satisfied that Rebekah — her leadership and her standard of ethics and her standard of conduct — is very good,” the younger Murdoch told BBC News in an interview.