LONDON, July 16 (Reuters) - “We are sorry,” Rupert Murdoch said in British newspapers on Saturday, as he tried to quell the uproar over a phone-hacking scandal that has claimed his top two newspaper executives and put pressure on police and politicians.
In full-page adverts, News Corp owner Murdoch pledged “concrete steps” to resolve the issue in a bid to regain the initiative after losing Les Hinton, head of Dow Jones, publisher of the Wall Street Journal, and Rebekah Brooks, head of News Corp’s UK newspaper arm News International, on Friday.
“For a business that prides itself on holding the powerful to account, we failed when it came to one of our papers. Apologising for our mistakes and fixing them are only the first steps,” News International said in newspaper adverts on Sunday.
Unlike apologies published on Saturday, Sunday’s were not signed by Murdoch but all were a rare show of contrition for a Murdoch business, included a pledge to cooperate with police.
But some questioned if the apologies would allay public and political anger over the scandal, especially given Murdoch had only on Thursday in a Wall Street Journal interview said his company had only made “minor mistakes” in handling the crisis.
“I think a PR man has told him to say these things and I don’t he think believes a word of it. It seems like a confession to me that they haven’t cooperated with the police so far,” British lawmaker Chris Bryant, a prominent campaigner against media abuses, told Reuters.
The Murdoch-owned News of the World newspaper is alleged to have hacked thousands of phones, including that of murdered 13-year-old Milly Dowler, sparking a furor that forced Murdoch to close the paper, and drop a $12-billion plan to buy full control of highly profitable pay-TV operator BSkyB.
The spotlight now turns to Murdoch’s son and presumed successor, James, who took over the European operations of News Corp as the crisis was beginning. He and Murdoch, along with Brooks, face a grilling in Britain’s parliament on Tuesday.
The attempts at conciliation included Murdoch’s personal apology on Friday to Dowler’s parents in what appeared to be an admission the News of the World, then edited by Brooks and overseen by Hinton, had in 2002 hacked into the voicemails of their missing daughter who was later found murdered.
That allegation reignited a five-year-old scandal and may have also broken the grip that Murdoch, 80, held over British politics for three decades as leaders from Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron sought his support.
The scandal has heaped pressure on Britain’s police, who are accused of being too close to News International, of accepting cash from News of the World and other newspaper reporters, and of not doing enough to investigate phone-hacking allegations that surfaced as far as back as 2005.
Britain’s senior police chief Paul Stephenson came under renewed pressure late on Saturday after it emerged he had stayed at a luxury health spa at which Neil Wallis, a former News of the World deputy editor, was a public relations adviser.
A police statement said Stephenson did not know of Wallis’s connection with the spa, and that his stay was paid for by the spa’s managing director, a family friend with no links to his professional life.
Stephenson is already under fire after his force said Wallis, who has been arrested over the phone-hacking scandal, had been hired as a consultant by the police.
Cameron has pledged a judge-led inquiry into the scandal, and police are renewing their efforts. Questions are being asked over how much News Corp and News International executives knew about phone hacking, and whether authorities were misled.
Police have already said News International deliberately thwarted their investigations into phone hacking.
In his note, Murdoch admitted that “simply apologising is not enough” as he tries to regain his grip on events that in recent days spun out of his control.
“It’s a good strategy. The problem is it’s too late. Is it repairing the damage? No. But the strategy is that it’s trying to move the story into a second phase,” said Charlie Beckett of the London School of Economics’ Polis journalism think-tank.
“The big question mark is how vulnerable is Rupert ultimately, but James in particular, and Rebekah and Les in terms of what they were told and ignored,” he added.
Brooks had resisted pressure to quit, but finally resigned as chief executive of News International after a chorus of calls for her to go. She said remaining had made her a “focus of the debate” and detracted from resolving issues at the company.
The flame-haired and sharp-tongued executive and former editor of News of the World was a favorite of Murdoch, who only days ago described Brooks as his first priority.
Cameron had also called on Brooks to resign. His closeness to her and also his decision to hire former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his communications chief, embarrassed the prime minister and raised doubts over his judgment.
On Friday, Cameron tried to put the issue behind him by releasing a list of meetings he has had with media executives.
It emerged that Coulson visited Cameron in March, two months after quitting his job on Cameron’s staff amid allegations of phone hacking while he was a newspaper editor. Coulson was arrested last week over the issue and later released on bail.
“In inviting Andy Coulson back, the prime minister ... invited someone back to thank him for his work, who worked for him for several years. That is a normal human thing to do, I think that shows a positive side to his character,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague told BBC radio on Saturday.
Reporting by Mohammed Abbas; Editing by Peter Cooney and Louise Ireland