UK government turns against Murdoch bid

Published 1:02 pm Tuesday, July 12, 2011

LONDON (AP) — The British government on Tuesday joined in calls for Rupert Murdoch to shelve his ambition of taking full control of British Sky Broadcasting as a widening investigation of phone hacking and bribery at his newspapers fed the backlash against the powerful media mogul.

The decision followed a dramatic accusation by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown that Murdoch’s U.K. newspapers employed criminals to obtain confidential information about his family and ordinary people, and as police officers came under sharp criticism for failing to turn up evidence of some of the most serious spying allegations.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s office said the government would vote with the opposition Labour Party on Wednesday to support a motion calling on Murdoch and his News Corp. to withdraw the $12 billion bid for highly profitable satellite broadcaster BSkyB.

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Labour leader Ed Miliband said the motion, which is not legally binding but is a powerful expression of sentiment, would be the simplest way to ensure that the bid isn’t considered until the criminal investigations are complete.

“Ultimately, that is a decision for News Corp. but we would always expect people to take seriously what Parliament has said,” said Cameron’s official spokesman, Steve Field.

Cameron’s decision marked a sharp breach in relations with News International, the U.K. branch of News Corp., which published the Sunday tabloid News of the World, the focus of two criminal investigations.

Since public outrage exploded last week when it was claimed that News of the World employees hacked the phone of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old murder victim, Cameron has said he would have accepted the resignation of his friend Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of News International. On Monday, he said Murdoch should focus on the hacking and bribery issues, not the takeover.

Cameron has been embarrassed by the arrest of former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, who from 2007 until January was the prime minister’s communications director.

On Monday, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt reportedly was prepared to tell the House of Commons that the government could veto a bid only on grounds that the takeover would give New Corp. too large a share of the news market. But, that position collapsed when News Corp. withdrew promises to spin off Sky News as a separate company, and the government responded by ordering the Competition Commission to undertake a review expected to last the rest of the year or longer.

Brown’s furious denunciation of the politically powerful News International papers came a day after it was revealed The Sun newspaper obtained confidential information in 2006 that Brown’s infant son Fraser had cystic fibrosis — and that he was among those whose privacy was breached by Murdoch’s papers.

They “really exploited people — I’m not talking so much about me here now, I’m talking about people who were at rock bottom,” Brown told the BBC. Brown said he knew of no legitimate way The Sun could have found out about his son’s illness, though the newspaper said it used legitimate means.

News International defended the story, issuing a statement which said that it was “able to assure the Brown family that we did not access the medical records of their son, nor did we commission anyone to do so.”

The widening allegations of illegal eavesdropping of politicians, royalty and hundreds of ordinary people at Murdoch-owned newspapers also renewed anger at London’s Metropolitan Police for dropping an earlier investigation into company practices.

At a tense House of Commons parliamentary committee hearing, one current and two former senior officials of London’s Metropolitan Police said they regretted that an investigation of the News of the World in 2006 had not uncovered the extent of the alleged phone hacking.

They blamed the News of the World and News International for not cooperating and pleaded that the force was preoccupied with terrorism investigations.

Resources were stretched and there were not enough officers to fully staff 70 terrorist investigations running at the time, said Peter Clarke, former commander of the anti-terrorist branch.

The hacking case yielded convictions and prison sentences for a reporter and a private detective working for News of the World, but recent allegations suggest the practices were much more widespread at Murdoch’s papers.

Documents gathered in the first investigation yielded 3,870 names, 5,000 landline numbers and 4,000 mobile numbers that may potentially have been hacked, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers told the committee. So far, she said, police had contacted 170 potential targets of hacking.

The scandal has broadened, with among others accusations, the allegation that Murdoch reporters paid bodyguards of Queen Elizabeth II for sensitive phone numbers and travel plans.

BSkyB shares fell for the sixth straight day, closing down 3.3 percent at 692 pence ($11.03) on the London Stock Exchange. At the start of last week, they were at 850 pence.