Murdoch apologises to victims as aide Brooks quits

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Rupert Murdoch Friday sacrificed his top British aide Rebekah Brooks and apologised to the family of a murdered girl at the heart of the phone-hacking row, in a bid to defuse the crisis engulfing his media empire.

As the FBI launched a probe into the activities of Murdoch's journalists in the United States, he finally abandoned his attempts to protect Brooks and accepted her resignation as chief executive of his British newspaper unit, News International.

The Australian-born magnate is also publishing a humbling advertisement in British papers Saturday apologising to the victims of the scandal and admitting that the News of the World tabloid was guilty of "serious wrongdoing".

The flame-haired Brooks was editor of the tabloid from 2000-2003 at the time when it allegedly hacked the phone of murdered teenager Milly Dowler -- the claim that sparked the crisis and led to the closure of the paper.

Brooks has denied all knowledge that the practice was in use at that time.

In a further show of contrition Murdoch met Dowler's parents at a London hotel Friday to issue a personal apology, but the 80-year-old whose papers once helped decide British elections faced chants of "Shame on you" from protesters.

"As founder of the company I was appalled to find out what had happened and I apologised, and I have nothing further to say," Murdoch told a scrum of reporters.

But the reach of the scandal expanded again when it emerged that British actor Jude Law is suing The Sun over phone hacking in 2005 and 2006 when Brooks was editor, in the first such claim against the Murdoch-owned daily.

News International dismissed the claims as a "deeply cynical and deliberately mischievous attempt to draw The Sun into the phone-hacking issue." Law is already suing the now defunct News of the World.

Brooks's departure capped a disastrous week for Murdoch in which he has been forced to shut the 168-year-old News of the World, the foundation stone of his British empire, and scrap a buy-out of British pay-TV giant BSkyB.

The 43-year-old Brooks -- who started out as a secretary at the tabloid and was eventually dubbed Murdoch's "fifth daughter" because of her closeness to the elderly magnate -- told News International staff she felt a "deep sense of responsibility for the people we have hurt".

"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 endeavours to fix the problems of the past," she wrote in an internal email.

"Therefore I have given Rupert and James Murdoch my resignation. While it has been a subject of discussion, this time my resignation has been accepted," wrote Brooks, whose offer to resign last week had been rejected by Murdoch.

The scandal has since drawn in Prime Minister David Cameron, politicians and the police, raising concerns over the workings of power in Britain.

Cameron -- himself under pressure for his friendship with Brooks and his employment of her News of the World successor Andy Coulson as his former media chief -- thought her resignation was "the right decision," Downing Street said.

He faced further trouble on Friday, however, when Downing Street sources admitted that Cameron had entertained Coulson privately at Chequers, his country residence, in March, some two months after Coulson quit the post.

Brooks will be replaced by New Zealander Tom Mockridge, the chief executive of Murdoch-owned satellite broadcaster Sky Italia.

News International later said it would publish an apology in seven British national newspapers on Saturday, headed with the words "We are sorry", and bearing Murdoch's signature.

"We are sorry for the serious wrongdoing that occurred. We are deeply sorry for the hurt suffered by the individuals affected," it says.

Murdoch and his son James, the chairman of News International and deputy chief operating officer of parent company News Corp., will on Tuesday be quizzed by a committee of British lawmakers, having initially resisted the idea. Brooks will also testify.

Nine people have been arrested over the scandal since police reopened the investigation into phone hacking in January. The latest was Neil Wallis, a former deputy editor of the News of the World under Coulson.

The scandal has also embroiled the police with the revelation that Wallis had been hired by Scotland Yard Chief Paul Stephenson, prompting calls on Friday for the commissioner to quit.

In the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced that News Corp. employees may have targeted the phone records of victims of the September 11 attacks.

© 2011 AFP

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