LONDON (AP) - Rupert Murdoch’s scandal-rocked empire retreated from defiance to contrition Friday as the media magnate accepted the resignation of his protege Rebekah Brooks, publicly apologized for his company’s sins and met the family of a murdered schoolgirl whose phone was hacked by the News of the World tabloid.
The shift in strategy was aimed at calming a storm that has knocked nearly $7 billion off the value of Murdoch’s News Corp., scuttled his ambitions to take control of lucrative British Sky Broadcasting, withered his political power in Britain _ and is threatening to destabilize his globe-spanning business.
Just a day after asserting that News Corp. had made only “minor mistakes,” Murdoch issued an apology to run in Britain’s national newspapers for “serious wrongdoing” by the News of the World, which he shut down last week amid allegations of large-scale illegal hacking by its staff.
“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,” said the full-page ad, signed by Murdoch and due to run in Saturday’s editions of all main national newspapers.
Murdoch promised “further concrete steps to resolve these issues and make amends for the damage they have caused.”
Murdoch also met the family of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, whose phone was hacked by the News of the World in 2002. The revelation that journalists had accessed her phone in search of scoops inflamed the long-simmering scandal about illegal eavesdropping by the newspaper.
The 80-year-old mogul emerged from the meeting at a London hotel to catcalls of “shame on you!” from hecklers. He said that “as founder of the company I was appalled to find out what had happened and I apologized.”
Dowler family lawyer Mark Lewis said Murdoch appeared humbled and had offered “a heartfelt and what seemed to be a very sincere apology.”
“I don’t think somebody could have held their head in their hands so many times and said that they were sorry,” Lewis said.
Murdoch’s tone was dramatically different from an interview published Thursday in the Wall Street Journal _ which is owned by News Corp. _ in which he said the company had handled the crisis “extremely well in every way possible” and complained he was “getting annoyed” at all the negative headlines.
The crisis claimed its most senior scalp Friday as Brooks, chief executive of Murdoch’s British newspaper division, resigned.
The media magnate had defended the 43-year-old Brooks in the face of demands she step down from British politicians _ including her friend and neighbor, Prime Minister David Cameron. After previously refusing to accept her resignation, he made an abrupt switch as News Corp. struggled but failed to contain the crisis.
Brooks said she was stepping aside because “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 endeavors to fix the problems of the past,” she said in an email to staff.
Brooks said she would “concentrate on correcting the distortions and rebutting the allegations about my record as a journalist, an editor and executive.”
A new chief executive untainted by the U.K. problems, Tom Mockridge, was installed to replace Brooks at News International, the British arm of Rupert Murdoch’s global News Corp. Mockridge, a 55-year-old New Zealander, joined News Corp. in 1991 and has been in charge of Sky Italia since 2003.
The moves came after News Corp. brought in Edelman Communications to help with public relations and lobbying _ an admission, perhaps, that its attempts to manage the crisis have so far been a disaster.
News Corp.’s critics say the company has failed to appreciate the mood of public and political anger. Media analyst Claire Enders said the company had cast itself as a victim _ “which is completely impossible for people here to respond to and is making things worse.”
Brooks’ departure marks a reversal of fortune for one of Britain’s most powerful media executives, who rose from secretary to CEO during 22 years with News International.
Critics said she should have gone long ago. She was editor of the News of the World from 2000 to 2003, when the paper’s employees allegedly hacked into 13-year-old Milly’s phone as police searched for her, potentially interfering with the police investigation.
Brooks has always said she had no knowledge of phone hacking, though she did acknowledge in a 2003 appearance before lawmakers that her paper paid police officers for information _ an illegal practice that, along with hacking, is now the center of a criminal investigation.
Brooks had been in charge of News International’s four _ now three _ British newspapers since 2007, following a four-year stint as editor of the market-leading daily tabloid, The Sun. Just a week ago, she faced 200 angry employees at the News of the World who had lost their jobs as she kept hers when Murdoch shut down the paper.
When shareholders began to call for her to go, Brooks’ position became untenable. Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal Alsaud, the second-largest News Corp. stockholder, told the BBC on Thursday that if Brooks were found to be implicated in wrongdoing by the newspapers “for sure she has to go.”
Her resignation was greeted with relief by British politicians.
“It is right that Rebekah Brooks has finally taken responsibility for the terrible events that happened on her watch,” said opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband. “No one in this country should exercise power without responsibility.”
Cameron, who had called for Brooks to step down, said she made “the right decision,” said the prime minister’s spokesman, Steve Field.
Friday’s events suggest Murdoch and his son James have realized their damage-limitation exercise has been a massive failure.
Allegations emerged last week that the News of the World hacked the phones of not only celebrities, politicians and athletes but a murdered schoolgirl as well as the victims of London’s 2005 terrorist bombings and the families of dead British soldiers.
The company first shut down the News of the World and then abandoned a bid to take control of BSkyB in a bid to limit the damage to the greater News Corp. empire, which includes Fox News, the 20th Century Fox movie studio, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post and the three remaining British newspapers _ The Sun, The Times and The Sunday Times.
Wall Street analysts and investors have mostly stuck by the company, saying most of its value comes from its television and movie businesses. Many would be happy if the company pulled out of the slimly profitable newspaper business altogether.
Donald Yacktman, president of Austin, Texas-based Yacktman Asset Management Co., which owns a 2 percent stake in News Corp. worth about $450 million, said the recent scandal hasn’t soured his outlook. While he doesn’t condone illegal activity, he said the economic impact of the scandal will be minimal and he believes the stock is more attractive now that the company dropped its BSkyB bid.
“Our fear was that (the company) was to going to pay way too much for it,” he said of BSkyB.
The crisis is far from over.
This week Cameron appointed a judge to conduct a sweeping inquiry into criminal activity at the paper and in the British media.
British police have arrested seven people in their investigation of phone hacking, and two others in a parallel investigation of alleged bribery of police officers. Police say they have recovered a list of 3,700 names of potential victims but so far have been in touch with fewer than 200.
Next week Brooks and the two Murdochs face questions from a British parliamentary committee. Rupert and James Murdoch initially resisted, but agreed to appear after the committee issued formal summonses to them.
Being hauled before a hostile group of legislators marks a rapid change of fortune for Murdoch, long accustomed to being courted by prime ministers and other politicians.
Most worrying for the Murdochs are signs the crisis could yet spread to the United States, where the FBI has opened an investigation into whether 9/11 victims or their families were targeted by News Corp. papers.
News Corp.s main, nonvoting stock, which has rallied in recent days after losses last week, increased 20 cents, or 1.3 percent, to close Friday at $15.64.
Raphael G. Satter, Danica Kirka and Cassandra Vinograd contributed to this report.
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