August 9, 2022

Scandal Shifts Britain’s Media and Political Landscape

The decision by Rupert Murdoch’s media conglomerate, the News Corporation, to close the paper, The News of the World, seemed to be a calculated move to help protect Mr. Murdoch’s proposed $12 billion takeover of the pay-television company British Sky Broadcasting. But it hardly put an end to the uproar, or to Mr. Murdoch’s connection to it.

The scandal exposes a web of relationships between the Murdochs’ empire on the one hand and the police and politicians on the other. And it poses new challenges for Mr. Murdoch, a media tycoon who has at times seemed to hold much of Britain’s political establishment in thrall, cultivating connections to both Labour and Conservative governments and using the prospect of his support — or its withdrawal — to help drive his political agenda.

In a statement of strikingly self-critical apology, Mr. Murdoch’s son and heir apparent, James Murdoch, admitted that News International, the company’s British subsidiary, had “failed to get to the bottom of repeated wrongdoings that occurred without conscience or legitimate purpose.” The company’s repeated assertions that the scandal was “confined to one reporter,” had proven untrue, he said, “and those who acted wrongly will have to face the consequences.”

According to several people who have been briefed on the matter, it appeared increasingly likely that Andy Coulson, a former News of the World editor who most recently worked as the chief spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron’s government, would be arrested Friday on suspicion of illegally paying the police for information during his editorship. His arrest, if it does take place, would be a huge blow not just to Mr. Murdoch, but to the government and to Mr. Cameron’s Conservative Party.

The prime minister has always vouched for Mr. Coulson’s integrity and said he believed Mr. Coulson’s assurances that he had done nothing wrong.

By closing the weekly News of the World, which is 168 years old and is Britain’s largest-circulation newspaper, Mr. Murdoch seems determined to try to limit damage from the scandal and remove a possible obstacle to the takeover of British Sky Broadcasting, known as BSkyB.

According to a person close to Mr. Murdoch, the move also gives him an excuse to do something he had planned to do anyway: turn his flagship Sun tabloid into a seven-day operation, preserving his lucrative share in the Sunday newspaper market while decontaminating the brand by removing its association with The News of the World.

Critics of Mr. Murdoch said the move was more expedient than remorseful. “This seems like a cynical rebranding exercise,” said Jeremy Reed, a lawyer for several public figures who have sued The News of the World over allegations that the paper had hacked into, or intercepted, their cellphone messages.

The unfolding scandal also raises new questions about the close relationship between the police and the tabloid news media in Britain.

According to another person familiar with the possible charges, e-mails recently turned over to the police from The News of the World linked Mr. Coulson and half a dozen other people, including high-ranking editors, to payments to the police “in the six figures.”

The payments were said to be not just for news tips, a standard tabloid practice despite its illegality, but also for substantial information, including confidential documents held by the police. Not only would any arrests be a blow to News International, the News Corporation’s British subsidiary, but the company also faces the awkward prospect that any current or former News of the World employee facing prison might be tempted to argue, with specific examples, that wrongdoing was widespread at the paper.

Accusations of illegal behavior at The News of the World have swirled for some time at no obvious cost to the newspaper, whose salacious focus on frothy sex scandals and show-business gossip helps it sell some 2.7 million copies every Sunday. But public revulsion spilled over this week at new allegations — separate from those linked to Mr. Coulson — that the paper hacked into the phones of a 13-year-old murder victim, Milly Dowler, the families of slain soldiers and victims of the 2005 subway bombings.

Reporting was contributed by Jo Becker, Julia Werdigier and Ravi Somaiya from London, Jeremy Peters and Brian Stelter from New York, and Tim Arango from Baghdad.

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