LONDON (Reuters) - Rupert Murdoch’s planned takeover of pay-TV operator BSkyB should not be affected by his UK news arm admitting its role in a long-running phone hacking scandal, British politicians said on Sunday.
News International, parent company of Britain’s top-selling News of the World tabloid, said on Friday it would admit liability and pay compensation in some civil cases, something it did in this Sunday’s edition.
It was an about-turn from the media group’s previous denial that it knew journalists were accessing voicemail messages of the royal family, politicians, celebrities and sports stars.
News International is part of Murdoch’s global media empire News Corp (NWSA.O).
Some critics said the admission raised questions about News Corp’s $14 billion planned purchase of BSkyB, which is set to be given the green light by Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt in the next few weeks.
Former Home Secretary John Prescott, who believes his phone was hacked by the paper, said on Friday the government should hold off “until all investigations are complete.”
But the Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury Alexander said that while police investigations must continue into what he said had been “a serious scandal,” it did not raise questions over the deal.
“The decision about BSkyB and News Corp is something which is being considered completely separately,” he told BBC TV.
“Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary, is acting in a quasi-judicial capacity. The factors he can take into account are very tightly circumscribed by law.”
Labour’s shadow Welsh Secretary Peter Hain, who criticized the police investigation up until recently as “tardy,” said the issue was more about “one rogue newspaper.”
“This is not about the wider issue of Sky and its situation in broadcasting,” he told BBC television.
“What we have seen here is a rogue newspaper behaving in a rogue fashion and subverting democratic rights and subverting people’s individual human rights whether they are politicians or celebrities.”
John Whittingdale, Conservative chairman of parliament’s culture committee, said Britain needed to take a long-hard look at how the press had operated in the past.
“Now at the moment there isn’t necessarily any evidence pointing beyond the News of the World, but I think that is something that needs to be considered,” he told Sky News.
Charlotte Harris of law firm Mishcon de Reya, which represents five of the 24 individuals with active court cases against the News of the World, said there was a lot more evidence to look at.
“Whether or not it will end up with a great big trial I don’t know, I think it may well do,” she told BBC television.
News International had always blamed a handful of “rogue reporters.”
The scandal threw into question the judgment of Prime Minister David Cameron, who appointed former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his head of communications.
Coulson ran the paper at the time of the hacking scandal. Although he has always denied knowledge of it, he was forced to resign as Cameron’s media manager earlier this year, saying the focus on the hacking scandal was too great a distraction.
The scandal dates back to 2005/6, when the tabloid’s royal reporter and a private detective were arrested and jailed for snooping on the voicemail messages of royal aides.
Police reopened an investigation and earlier this week arrested two journalists, former senior News of the World editor Ian Edmondson and a man identified as the paper’s chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck.
Writing by Avril Ormsby; Editing by Jon Loades-Carter