Rupert Murdoch flew into the UK to take personal charge of the phone hacking scandal today as pressure mounted on the Government to freeze News Corporation’s proposed takeover of BSkyB.
The 80-year-old 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 by chauffeur-driven car.
It came hours after staff gathered outside the building in an emotional scene to send off the newspaper – which ended its 168-year history with a “Thank You & Goodbye” headline and an apology for having “lost our way”.
Mr Murdoch, the News Corp chairman, said yesterday that it had been a “collective” decision to close the tabloid – taken amid public revulsion over revelations that the mobile phones of murdered teenager Milly Dowler and the families of 7/7 terror victims were targeted.
He also renewed his backing for NI chief executive Rebekah Brooks – who edited the NoW at the time of Milly Dowler’s disappearance – despite widespread calls for her to go.
As the political storm continued, Labour leader Ed Miliband threatened to force a Commons vote on suspending consideration of the proposed News Corp takeover of BSkyB until the completion of criminal investigations into the hacking allegations.
And he appeared to be gaining significant support from senior Liberal Democrats - with deputy leader Simon Hughes indicating that he backed a pause and Energy Secretary Chris Huhne not ruling out support for a Labour motion to be tabled on Wednesday.
While a vote on Labour’s motion on Wednesday would not be binding, it would be hard for ministers not to act if MPs backed a pause.
But 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.
In a warning to Prime Minister David Cameron, Mr Miliband told BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show: “He has got to understand that 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, to get that 100% stake, 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.”
A consultation on News Corp’s bid to buy the remaining BSkyB shares it does not own ended on Friday – with the Government signalling that it could take several months before Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt was in a position to make a ruling.
But Mr Miliband and other senior figures argue that the takeover should have been referred to the Competition Commission and have urged media regulator Ofcom to consider whether the hacking controversy alters its view on whether News Corp was “fit and proper” to run BSkyB.
Mr Hughes told Sky News: “My recommendation to my colleagues – and it’s not my final decision, it’s a parliamentary party decision – would be that we as a parliamentary party make clear that it is our view that the merger should not go ahead until the criminal investigations are completed.”
Energy Secretary Chris Huhne did not rule out support for a motion either but said the detail of the wording would have to be studied.
He also called for inquiries into whether phone hacking was practised beyond just the News of the World.
Ms Brooks, the chief executive of News International which published the Sunday tabloid as well as the Sun, The Times and The Sunday Times, has insisted there was no reason to suspect hacking had taken place at any of the other titles.
Mr Hammond conceded that the idea of the takeover going through while criminal inquiries were still in progress raised serious concerns.
But he insisted the Government was constrained by the law and that breaching its obligations would place it in the same category as phone hackers. And he accused Mr Miliband of being “in danger of opposing for opposition’s sake”.
While Ofcom could intervene “at any time” to look into whether it believed News Corps remained “fit and proper”, Mr Hunt had to make his judgment solely on the grounds of plurality.
“I understand people would be very concerned (if the takeover went through while criminal investigations were ongoing) 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.
“I am sorry if Ed Miliband moves away from sensible engagement with the issue to simply playing politics.”