LONDON (Reuters) - Rupert Murdoch’s British newspaper business could face scrutiny for three more years after the officer heading a police inquiry into phone-hacking and illegal payments to public officials said she expected it to last that long.
The police investigation into criminal activities at Murdoch’s News International unit has already forced him to close the News of the World tabloid and end a deal to acquire the whole of the pay-TV group BSkyB, which would have been the biggest deal in News Corp’s history.
Speaking at a parliamentary committee on Tuesday, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers said London’s police force had budgeted for three more years of inquiries into the illegal activities of British journalists.
Those investigations have broadened from an initial focus into allegations that News of the World reporters hacked into voicemail messages left on the mobile phones of celebrities, politicians and crime victims and now includes probes into corrupt payments to officials and computer hacking.
A total of 79 people have been arrested across all three inquiries, about half of which are current or former journalists who mostly worked for Murdoch’s papers.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s ex-media chief, Andy Coulson, and Rebekah Brooks, the former head of News International, are among a number of former News of the World staff charged with conspiring to hack phones.
With continued embarrassment from the police inquiries, there has been growing speculation Murdoch could sell his British titles after he stood down from a string of boards overseeing the Sun, Times and Sunday Times newspapers in July.
The company said in June it would separate its publishing and entertainment assets by next year in move to satisfy shareholders who had been pressing News Corp to rid itself of its troubled British newspapers business.
Akers said the inquiries, involving some 185 officers, had cost just under 9 million pounds this year, and with a budget allocated for the next three years, would amount to a bill of 40 million pounds ($64 million).
“There is an enormous amount of money being spent on this, a lot of police resource and post-Olympics we’re going to be in very tight financial times,” she told parliament’s Home Affairs Committee.
The inquiry into accusations journalists had bribed police officers and public officials in return for information had itself led to 43 arrests and was potentially open-ended as long as newspapers provided new evidence, she said.
“All the time that they disclose material to us we need further inquiries,” she said. “Frankly, if we are uncovering corrupt police officers we feel we should continue to do that.”
Akers declined to add to her previous disclosure at a public inquiry that police were also examining allegations against reporters at Trinity Mirror, which publishes the Daily and Sunday Mirror, and Express Newspapers, publisher of the Daily Express and Star titles.
The police inquiries into phone-hacking were transformed last year after Murdoch’s News Corp set up an internal investigation and started handing evidence to police.
Until then News International had maintained that phone hacking had been restricted to a single “rogue” News of the World reporter jailed in 2007 along with a private detective for intercepting the messages of aides to Britain’s royal family.
Akers said officers now believed they had contacted all the potential victims of phone-hacking they could identify, a total of 2,552 people of which 658 were likely to have been victims.
Police had been unable to reach a further 1,781 potential victims and 388 likely victims, mainly because the mobile numbers were no longer in use or the names were too common to trace to an individual.
Another 23 likely victims were not contacted because of undisclosed “operational” reasons, she added.
Akers added another senior London officer, Stephen Kavanagh, would take overall control of the investigations when she retired in the coming weeks.
Additional reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Alison Williams