LONDON, Jul 16 – Rupert Murdoch issued a public apology on Saturday for the phone hacking row, as two of his top executives resigned over the crisis that has engulfed his media empire.
The News Corp chief finally abandoned his attempts to protect Rebekah Brooks, former editor of the scandal-hit News of the World, and accepted her resignation as chief executive of his British newspaper unit, News International.
Hours later he was also saying goodbye to Les Hinton, chief executive of Murdoch’s Dow Jones unit and a former chairman of News International.
As the FBI began probing allegations that Murdoch’s US employees may have hacked the phones of victims of the September 11 attacks, the 80-year-old media tycoon changed his strategy for dealing with the crisis.
Where he had previously appeared defiant, Murdoch ran full-page adverts in seven national British newspapers on Saturday with the message: “We are sorry”.
It said: “We are sorry for the serious wrongdoing that occurred. We are deeply sorry for the hurt suffered by the individuals affected. We regret not acting faster to sort things out.”
In a further show of contrition, Murdoch met the parents of murdered teenager Milly Dowler, whose phone was allegedly hacked by the News of the World in 2002 – the claim that sparked the crisis and led to the closure of the paper.
“As founder of the company I was appalled to find out what had happened and I apologised,” he told a scrum of reporters after the meeting Friday.
But Murdoch, whose papers once helped decide British elections, faced chants of “Shame on you” from protesters.
And the scandal continued to spiral, with the news that British actor Jude Law is suing The Sun over phone hacking in 2005 and 2006, when Brooks was editor, in the first such claim against the Murdoch-owned daily.
News International dismissed the claims as a “deeply cynical and deliberately mischievous attempt to draw The Sun into the phone-hacking issue.” Law is already suing the now defunct News of the World.
The departures of Brooks and Hinton capped a disastrous week for Murdoch in which he was forced to shut the News of the World, the first British paper he bought, and scrap a buy-out of British pay-TV giant BSkyB.
Brooks denies any wrongdoing, but as editor of the tabloid from 2000-2003, at the time when Dowler’s phone was allegedly hacked, she became a lightning rod for public and political anger.
The 43-year-old – who started out as a secretary at the tabloid and is viewed almost like a daughter by Murdoch – told News International staff she felt a “deep sense of responsibility for the people we have hurt”.
“My desire to remain on the bridge has made me a focal point of the debate. This is now detracting attention from all our honest endeavours to fix the problems of the past,” she wrote in an internal email.
Brooks will be replaced by New Zealander Tom Mockridge, the chief executive of Murdoch-owned satellite broadcaster Sky Italia.
Hours later, Hinton announced his resignation, saying that although he knew nothing of the phone hacking when he was chairman of News International from 1995 to 2007, he must take responsibility for the “unimaginable” pain it caused.
“That I was ignorant of what apparently happened is irrelevant and in the circumstances I feel it is proper for me to resign from News Corp. and apologise to those hurt by the actions of News of the World,” he said.
The departure of Hinton and Brooks now leaves exposed Murdoch’s son James, chairman of News International and deputy chief operating officer of News Corp.
Both father and son have been summoned, alongside Brooks, to testify before British lawmakers on Tuesday about phone hacking and alleged payments by journalists to police officers.
The phone hacking scandal has extended far beyond Murdoch’s empire, drawing in Prime Minister David Cameron, politicians and the police.
Cameron has come under pressure for his friendship with Brooks and for his decision to hire her successor as News of the World editor, Andy Coulson, as his media chief.
Coulson left the job with Cameron in January amid ongoing revelations about phone hacking, but it emerged Friday that Cameron had invited him to his country residence at Chequers as recently as March.
Although he denies any wrongdoing, Coulson was arrested last week, one of nine people held over the scandal since police reopened their investigations in January.
The latest was Neil Wallis, a former deputy editor of the News of the World under Coulson, who it emerged this week went on to work for Scotland Yard Chief Paul Stephenson. Stephenson himself is now facing calls to quit.