Murdoch: She is my top priority

Steve Dinneen
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THE News of the World may have printed the final edition in its 168-year-old history but the political maelstrom raging around the phone hacking scandal continues to gather pace.

Rupert Murdoch flew into the UK yesterday for emergency talks with Rebekah Brooks, head of his UK newspaper business News International, amid growing concerns the scandal could scupper his multi-billion pound bid for BSkyB.

Following their meeting, Murdoch left his London home in St James’s with his arm around the former News of the World editor. When asked by reporters what his top priority was, Murdoch replied “This one,” pointing to Brooks.

The decision to stand by Brooks appears to leave Murdoch increasingly isolated in political circles. David Cameron has suggested her resignation should have been accepted and yesterday Labour leader Ed Miliband reiterated his view that Brooks should stand down.

Pressure on her will only intensify when, as is widely expected, she is questioned by police this week. Sources close to News International have denied she will be arrested, telling City A.M. she will be interviewed as a witness. Key Murdoch ally Les Hinton also faces tough questions over whether he saw a 2007 report that suggested widespread phone hacking before he denied this to parliament.

The negative publicity continues to taint Murdoch’s proposed bid for Sky. Miliband yesterday said he will attempt to force a parliamentary vote to delay the bid while police ramp up their investigation into illegal phone hacking and allegations of bribes paid to serving officers.

The Labour proposal appeared to attract support from senior Lib Dems Chris Huhne and Simon Hughes, who said they may break from the coalition line providing Miliband’s motion is not overly partisan. Deputy prime minister and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg is expected to give his party the green light to vote for the delay later today.

Huhne also confirmed that Clegg warned Cameron about the potential risks of hiring former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his director of communications. Coulson was arrested last week over allegations he signed off payments to police officers and had knowledge of the phone hacking culture at the newspaper.

Culture minister Jeremy Hunt has already signalled his decision on whether concerns over media plurality have been met will now be delayed by weeks, after receiving a record number of consultation submissions.

Sky shares have slumped 12 per cent since the start of this month on fears News Corp’s bid for the 61 per cent of Sky it does not already own could be halted.

Further phone hacking arrests are expected in the coming days, with sources saying up to 12 people could be brought before police.

At least four serving officers are thought to have been identified as having accepted bribes from reporters or private investigators.

The sentimental final edition of the News of the World, which featured the headline “Thank you and goodbye” overlaid on past front pages, did not suffer from the widely mooted boycott. Circulation for the paper was expected to fall by as much as half but industry watchers now expect it to have pulled in more than 3.5m readers. Additional reporting by Richard Partington.