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Rupert Murdoch's media company News Corp. seemed to catch everyone off guard Thursday, taking an unexpected step: Murdoch's son James announced that Sunday would mark the last edition of the scandal-tarred but top-selling U.K. tabloid News of the World.
The move revealed the typically masterful and influential Murdoch clan scrambling desperately for once to contain damage — and its willingness to kill one of its own titles in the effort to do so.
James Murdoch is the heir apparent at News Corp. and the head of the company's British operations. In a television interview, Murdoch said the allegations of illegal phone hacking reflected deplorable behavior and required the paper's closure.
"This company has been a great investor in journalism, a greater investor in media in general, and it's something we believe very strongly in. And clearly certain activities did not live up to those standards, and that's a matter of great regret for me personally and for the company," Murdoch said.
The scandal erupted at the most delicate of moments — News Corp. is seeking government approval to expand its stake in the broadcaster BSkyB from about 40 percent to the whole shebang.
Think of BSkyB as a hybrid of Comcast and DirecTV, with a near monopoly on televised sports. It was considered a done deal — especially given Prime Minister David Cameron's close ties to News Corp. executives.
But outrage mounted quickly and intensely when it was alleged that the tabloid targeted victims of violent crimes and the July 2005 terrorist bombings. Once-pliant politicians denounced the company, and once-lonely critics have found a crowd.
"This is clearly a commercial decision in part to jettison a tainted and toxic brand because advertisers are fleeing in droves, and also we as MPs are being inundated with emails and calls from constituents asking us to stand up to News International," said Labor MP Paul Farrelly, who led a parliamentary inquiry into the first wave of allegations involving the hacking of celebrities, royals and politicians.
Criminal investigations are gaining momentum. Former News of the World editor Andrew Coulson, also a former top aide to Prime Minister Cameron, was arrested in the affair Friday.
"We have some very serious and very good quality newspapers, but at the other end of the spectrum we have the News of the Worlds, and they are feral," Farrelly said. "They clearly, over a long period of time, decided they were above the law, and that anything goes in getting a story."
But killing the paper generated a reaction that has ranged from skepticism to cynicism. Actor Hugh Grant believes he too was hacked, and has publicly called on advertisers to boycott News of the World.
"We should see this for what it is," Grant told the BBC after James Murdoch's announcement. "It is a very cynical managerial maneuver, which has put several hundred not-evil people — there were certainly a lot of evil people there — but certainly a lot of noneditorial staff out of work. And has kept, in particular, one woman who was the editor, while Millie Dowler was being hacked, in a highly paid job."
Dowler was the schoolgirl whose abduction nine years ago apparently inspired the tabloid to hack into her voice mail messages. Rebekah Brooks was then the paper's editor, and is now the chief executive over the Murdochs' British newspapers.
"I am satisfied that Rebekah, her leadership of this business and her standard of ethics and her standard of conduct throughout her career are very good," James Murdoch said. "I think what she has shown and what we have shown with our actions around transparently and proactively working with police that she has led and this company has led."
Nonetheless, the British government has delayed ruling on the company's proposed takeover of BSkyB.
News Corp. has signaled it might launch a Sunday edition of its brash and gossipy weekday tabloid The Sun. Conveniently, it could replace the gap left by the departure of that oh-so-nettlesome News of the World.