By Raphael G. Satter and Robert Barr/The Associated Press
LONDON — Rebekah Brooks, Rupert Murdoch’s loyal lieutenant, resigned Friday as chief executive of his embattled British newspapers — the biggest casualty so far in the phone hacking scandal roiling Britain.
Murdoch had defended the 43-year-old Brooks in the face of demands from British politicians that she step down, and had previously refused to accept her resignation. He made an abrupt switch, however, as News Corp. struggled but failed to contain a U.K. crisis undermining Murdoch’s global media empire.
Brooks was editor of the News of the World tabloid between 2000 and 2003, when the paper’s employees allegedly hacked into the phone of 13-year-old murder victim Milly Dowler in 2002 as police searched for her, potentially in interfering with the investigation.
That report last week provoked outrage far beyond any previous revelations of snooping on celebrities, politicians and athletes. The storm knocked billions off the value of News Corp., scuttled its ambitions of taking full control of lucrative British Sky Broadcasting and radically changed the power balance between U.K. politicians and the feared Murdoch press.
In quick succession, Murdoch closed the 168-year-old News of the World and abandoned his bid for full BSkyB ownership. Prime Minister David Cameron then appointed a judge to conduct a sweeping inquiry into criminal activity at the paper and in the British media.
Brooks said the debate over her position as CEO of News International — the British arm of News Corp. — was now too much of a distraction.
“I have believed that the right and responsible action has been to lead us through the heat of the crisis. However my desire to remain on the bridge has made me a focal point of the debate,” Brooks said in an email Friday to colleagues that was released by News International. “This is now detracting attention from all our honest endeavors to fix the problems of the past.”
Tom Mockridge, chief executive of News Corp.’s Sky Italia television unit, was appointed to succeed Brooks immediately. Mockridge began his career at a paper in New Zealand and then served as a spokesman for the Australian government before joining News Corp. in 1991.
News Corp. also announced Friday it would run advertisements in all of Britain’s national papers soon to “apologize to the nation for what has happened.”
“We will follow this up in the future with communications about the actions we have taken to address the wrongdoing that occurred,” said James Murdoch, who heads the international operations of the New York-based News Corp. and has been considered to be his father’s heir apparent.
He said News Corp. had set up an independent Management & Standards Committee to establish and enforce clear standards of operation.
That was an abrupt shift in tone from Rupert Murdoch’s comments Thursday to The Wall Street Journal — one of his own papers — saying that News Corp. management had handled the crisis “extremely well in every way possible” save for a few “minor mistakes.”
Brooks has 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.
The news of 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, like the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone,” 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 had made “the right decision,” said Steve Field, the prime minister’s spokesman.
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 wrondgoing by the newspapers “for sure she has to go. ”
Brooks agreed Thursday to answer questions next week from a U.K. parliamentary committee. Rupert and James Murdoch initially resisted, but also agreed to appear after the committee raised the stakes by issuing formal summonses.
Being hauled before a hostile group of legislators marks a rapid change of fortune for the 80-year-old Murdoch, long accustomed to being courted by prime ministers and other politicians scared of provoking the wrath of his editors.
“Murdoch is like a beast or a god. He can attack you and destroy you or he can give you great power and glory,” Lord Maurice Glasman said Friday in a House of Lords debate. “He was outside the constraints, outside of law. He makes and breaks kings.”
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 for information. Police say they have recovered a list of 3,700 names — regarded as potential victims — but so far have been in touch with fewer than 200 people.
The FBI has also opened an investigation into claims that News Corp. journalists may have sought to hack into the phones of Sept. 11 victims in a quest for scoops.
Appearing before another U.K. parliamentary committee in 2003, Brooks had been asked whether the News of the World or The Sun had ever paid police for information.
“We have paid the police for information in the past,” she said.
Asked if she would do it again, she said: “It depends.”
Andy Coulson, the then-editor of News of the World who was arrested last week in the hacking investigation, interrupted to say: “We operate within the (press) code and within the law and if there is a clear public interest then we will.”
Coulson had been Cameron’s communications chief before resigning in January as the hacking allegations grew.
Murdoch flew into London last weekend to take charge of the response to the mushrooming phone scandal. Asked by reporters what his priority was, Murdoch gestured to Brooks and said, “This one.”
In her statement Friday, Brooks thanked Rupert Murdoch for his “wisdom, kindness and incisive advice,” and James Murdoch for his “great loyalty and friendship.”
James Murdoch praised Brooks as “one of the outstanding editors of her generation” and pledged support for her “as she takes this step to clear her name.”
While largely still on the defensive, another one of Murdoch’s British papers, The Sun tabloid, scored one point Friday against former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who had accused the paper of obtaining confidential medical files on his younger son, who has cystic fibrosis.
The Sun had vigorously rebutted the claim, saying it got its information from another parent, so far unidentified, allegedly motivated by a hope of raising awareness of the disease.
On Friday, The Guardian newspaper apologized for accepting Brown’s version of events.
“Articles in the Guardian of Tuesday 12 July incorrectly reported that the Sun newspaper had obtained information on the medical condition of Gordon Brown’s son from his medical records,” the newspaper said in its corrections column. “In fact, the information came from a different source and the Guardian apologizes for its error.”