LONDON - Rebekah Brooks, the loyal lieutenant of Rupert Murdoch, resigned Friday as chief executive of his embattled British newspapers, becoming the biggest casualty so far in the phone hacking scandal at a Sunday tabloid.
Murdoch had vigorously defended Brooks in the face of demands from politicians that she step down, and had previously refused to accept her resignation.
Brooks was editor of News of the World between 2000 and 2003, the time of the most explosive allegation to hit Murdoch's News Corp. media empire, and she has been in charge of News International's four British newspapers since 2007.
"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 to colleagues, which was released by News International. "This is now detracting attention from all our honest endeavours to fix the problems of the past."Read Brooks' full resignation statement (PDF) Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman says Rebekah Brooks made the right decision in resigning her post. Ed Milliband, Cameron's chief political foe as leader of the opposition Labour party, said he was "pleased that Rebekah Brooks has finally accepted responsibility for what happened on her watch," adding that he felt she waited to long to do so.
Tom Mockridge, currently chief executive of News Corp.'s Sky Italia television unit, was appointed to succeed Brooks.
Brooks agreed Thursday to answer questions next week from a U.K. parliamentary committee investigating the phone hacking and police bribery scandal that is consuming British media and politics. The news came just a day after Murdoch and his son James first refused, then agreed to appear before the lawmakers, after the committee raised the stakes by issuing formal summonses to them.News Corp. also announced Friday it would run advertisements in all of Britain's national papers this week 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 all Europe and Asia operations of the New York-based News Corp. and is considered his father's heir apparent.
In the U.S., meanwhile, the FBI opened a review into allegations the Murdoch media empire sought to hack into the phones of Sept. 11 victims in its quest for sensational scoops.
Those developments and the arrest of another former editor of a Murdoch tabloid deepened the crisis for News Corp., which has seen its stock price sink as investors ask whether the scandal could drag down the whole company.
Murdoch defended News Corp.'s handling of the scandal, saying it will recover from any damage caused by the phone-hacking and police bribery allegations. The 80-year-old told The Wall Street Journal which is owned by News Corp. that he is "just getting annoyed" at all the recent negative press.
He also dismissed reports he would sell his U.K. newspapers to stem the scandal, calling the suggestion "pure and total rubbish."
On Friday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed the early stages of an inquiry into allegations that employees of News Corp. tried to hack into the telephones of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.
"There have been members of Congress in the United States who have asked us to investigate those same allegations and we are progressing in that regard using the appropriate criminal law enforcement agencies in the United States," Holder told reporters in Australia while attending a meeting of the Attorneys-General of the U.S., United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
The allegation that Murdoch papers may have targeted 9/11 victims came from the rival Daily Mirror, which quoted an anonymous source as saying an unidentified American investigator had rejected approaches from unidentified journalists who showed a particular interest in British victims of the terror attacks. It cited no evidence that any phone had actually been hacked.
There was no indication members of Congress had information beyond the Mirror report.