Murdoch flies in to hacking storm

RUPERT MURDOCH flew into a political storm over his BSkyB takeover plans as he arrived in Britain to take personal charge of the phone-hacking scandal.

Labour leader Ed Miliband urged the media mogul to put his expansion plans on ice while police investigate claims of illegal practices and corruption at the News of the World.

And he secured high-level Liberal Democrat backing for a pause in the takeover process, heaping pressure on ministers to act if the News Corporation chairman does not.

Mr Murdoch clutched a copy of the final edition of the axed News of the World as he was whisked into News International’s headquarters in Wapping, east London, yesterday morning.

He and News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks, who is under pressure to quit, then met for around an hour at his Mayfair residence before walking to a nearby hotel for a meal, where they were joined by Mr Murdoch’s son, James, the chairman of News International.

The News of the World marked its final edition with a “Thank You & Goodbye” headline and an apology for having “lost our way”.

But the demise of the best-selling Sunday tabloid did nothing to quieten the maelstrom surrounding the Murdoch media empire.

Mr Miliband said the public would not understand if News Corp was allowed to go ahead with taking full control of the satellite broadcaster in the present circumstances. He spoke out amid reports that News International memos from 2007, handed to the police, appeared to acknowledge payments were made to police for information and the practice of phone hacking was more widespread than previously thought.

Labour is to table a Commons motion on Wednesday calling for consideration of the takeover to be halted until criminal investigations are complete. Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes indicated he backed such a move and Energy Secretary Chris Huhne did not rule out supporting a carefully-worded motion.

While a vote on Labour’s motion would not be binding, it would be hard for ministers not to act if MPs backed a pause.

Mr Miliband said: “When the public have seen the disgusting revelations that we have seen this week, the idea that this organisation, which engaged in these terrible practices, should be allowed to take over BSkyB . . . without the criminal investigation having been completed and on the basis of assurances from that self-same organisation — frankly, that just won’t wash with the public.”

Tory transport secretary Philip Hammond insisted that the government was constrained by its legal duties and accused the opposition leader of “playing politics” with the hacking issue.

However, he pointed out that media regulator Ofcom had the power “at any time” to reinvestigate whether it believed News Corp was “fit and proper” to own the broadcaster.

“I understand people would be very concerned (if the takeover went through while criminal investigations were going on) and I think many of us would be very concerned. But we have to operate within the law. If the (Labour) motion is calling on the government to ignore its duties under the law, simply to ride roughshod over the law, then I’m afraid that would be calling on us to be in no better position than others are currently being accused of.”

Mr Huhne called for assurances from Mr Murdoch that hacking had not been practised at other News International titles.

Ms Brooks, who was editor of the News of the World at the time teenage murder victim Milly Dowler’s mobile phone was targeted, has told MPs there is no reason to believe that is the case.

Former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, ex-royal editor Clive Goodman, and an unnamed 63-year-old man have been arrested and questioned by detectives. All were released on police bail.

In a highly unusual move, Scotland Yard assistant commissioner John Yates used a newspaper interview to express “extreme regret” that he did not act to reopen police inquiries into the allegations two years ago. He has agreed to appear before MPs, along with other senior Scotland Yard figures involved in the investigations, on Tuesday.

Milly Dowler’s family will be among hacking victims calling for “stronger, clearer and faster action” over phone hacking in talks with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg tomorrow.

They are suing the News of the World over claims their daughter’s phone was targeted by the paper when she went missing in 2002.

The Media Standards Trust, which has led a major campaign on the issue and has organised the meetings, said talks would be held with David Cameron and Mr Miliband later in the week.

The prime minister announced on Friday there would be two public inquiries: one led by a judge looking into phone hacking by newspapers and possible corruption involving police officers taking cash for information; and another into the wider question of press regulation.

Labour has accused him of acting too slowly, blaming his links to figures such as Mr Coulson, his No 10 communications director until he quit in January.

News International declined to comment on reports about the evidence passed to Scotland Yard.

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