Rupert Murdoch’s bid to take control of BSkyB was hanging in the balance tonight as it was claimed his journalists targeted Gordon Brown and the Prince of Wales with illegal techniques.
Britain's Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt referred the media tycoon’s proposed takeover of the satellite broadcaster to the Competition Commission amid further developments in the phone-hacking and police-corruption scandals at the News of the World.
The crisis enveloping Mr Murdoch’s empire widened as it was reported that journalists from other News International papers illegally obtained private information about former prime minister Mr Brown.
Mr Brown was targeted by the Sun and the Sunday Times, which accessed details from his legal file, Abbey National bank account and his baby son’s medical records, the Guardian and the BBC claimed.
Tonight Sky News quoted News International sources as being “comfortable” that stories reported by the Sun about Mr Brown’s children were obtained via legitimate means.
The Guardian also reported that police have warned Charles and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, that their voicemail messages may have been hacked by the News of the World.
A Clarence House spokesman said: “We are not commenting on an ongoing police investigation.”
In a statement, News International said it noted the allegations about Mr Brown, adding: “So that we can investigate these matters further, we ask that all information concerning these allegations is provided to us.”
Mr Murdoch’s News Corporation, the parent company of News International, today withdrew its offer to hive off Sky News as a separate firm as part of its bid to buy the 61% of BSkyB that it does not already own.
In a statement that defied City expectations that it would drop its takeover plans, it also said it was ready to “engage with” the Competition Commission over full ownership of the broadcaster.
Announcing that he was referring the bid to the regulator, Mr Hunt told MPs: “It will mean that the Competition Commission will be able to give further full and exhaustive consideration of this merger, taking into account all relevant recent developments.”
The move means News Corporation now faces a six to eight-month wait to learn whether the deal can go ahead.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg stepped up pressure on Mr Murdoch, urging him to do the “decent and sensible thing” by reconsidering his takeover bid for BSkyB.
Meanwhile, Scotland Yard angrily accused News International of “undermining” its investigation into claims that journalists paid corrupt police officers by leaking details of the inquiry to the media.
It emerged today that emails handed to detectives suggest the News of the World paid protection officers around £1,000 for the contact details of senior members of the royal household.
The Metropolitan Police was informed last month when detectives were handed a fresh set of documents from News International as part of the long-running phone-hacking investigation, a source said.
Buckingham Palace, News International and Scotland Yard were unable to confirm the allegations.
One email showed former royal editor Clive Goodman asking then-editor Andy Coulson for cash to buy a confidential directory of royal phone numbers, the BBC reported.
Mr Goodman, 53, and Mr Coulson, 43, have been arrested and bailed until October on suspicion of bribing police officers.
Responding to the reports, Scotland Yard said: “It is our belief that information that has appeared in the media today is part of a deliberate campaign to undermine the investigation into the alleged payments by corrupt journalists to corrupt police officers and divert attention from elsewhere.
“At various meetings over the last few weeks, information was shared with us by News International and their legal representatives and it was agreed by all parties that this information would be kept confidential so that we could pursue various lines of inquiry, identify those responsible without alerting them, and secure best evidence.
“However, we are extremely concerned and disappointed that the continuous release of selected information – that is only known by a small number of people - could have a significant impact on the corruption investigation.”
Mr Murdoch spent another day in London dealing with the crisis after flying into Britain yesterday, the day the News of the World was shut down.
News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks, who was editor of the News of the World when murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s voicemail messages were allegedly intercepted illegally, has volunteered to speak to police about the wider phone hacking scandal.
After meeting Mr Clegg, the Dowler family said today that Ms Brooks should do the “honourable thing” and quit.
Meanwhile, Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner John Yates denied ever being asked to review his force’s original phone-hacking investigation in 2006, which resulted in Mr Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire being jailed.
In a letter to the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, Mr Yates wrote: “From the beginning of my involvement in this matter in 2009, I have never conducted a ’review’ of the original investigation and nor have I ever been asked to do so.
“In relation to events that took place in 2009, I was provided with some considerable reassurance (and at a number of levels) that led me to a view that this case neither needed to be re-opened or reviewed.”
The senior police officer also denied he had any knowledge that Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked before the news emerged last week.
But in the Commons Labour MPs Tom Watson and Chris Bryant accused Mr Yates of misleading Parliament and said his position had become “untenable”.
Using parliamentary privilege, Mr Bryant said: “Assistant commissioner Yates repeatedly lied to Parliament... Surely he should resign.”
Prime Minister David Cameron, who is facing tough questions over his decision to hire Mr Coulson as No 10 communications director, said he believed News Corporation had to resolve the difficulties over the phone-hacking scandal before pressing ahead with the BSkyB bid.
He said allegations that information about the royal family was passed to journalists by police officers were “truly appalling” and, if true, would amount to “a dereliction of duty”.
The Prime Minister repeated that he had been assured by Mr Coulson that the former News of the World editor knew nothing of phone hacking under his watch.
But he added: “If it turns out that those assurances aren’t true, if I was lied to, I will be extremely angry.”