LONDON – The Murdoch media empire unexpectedly killed off the muckraking News of the World tabloid Thursday after a public backlash over the illegal tactics it used to expose the rich, the famous and the royal and remain Britain's best-selling weekly newspaper.
The abrupt decision stunned the paper's staff of 200, shocked the world's most competitive news town and ignited speculation that Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. plans to rebrand the tabloid under a new name in an effort to prevent a phone-hacking scandal from wrecking its bid for a more lucrative TV deal.
"This Sunday will be the last issue of the News of the World," James Murdoch, son of the media magnate, announced in a memo to staff.
The News of the World, which sells about 2.7 million copies a week, has been engulfed by accusations that it bribed police officers for information and hacked into the cell phone messages of victims ranging from missing schoolgirls to grieving families, celebrities, royals and politicians in a quest for attention-grabbing headlines. Police say they are examining the names of 4000 people who may have been targeted.
Faced with growing public outrage, political condemnation and fleeing advertisers, Murdoch stopped the presses on the 168-year-old newspaper.
James Murdoch said all revenue from the final issue, which will be ad-free, would go to "good causes."
The newspaper has acknowledged that it hacked into the voice mails of politicians, celebrities and royal aides, but maintained for years that the transgressions were confined to a few rogue staff members. A reporter and a private investigator working for the paper were jailed for phone hacking in 2007.
James Murdoch said that, if the allegations were true, "it was inhuman and has no place in our company."
The announcement sent shock waves across the British media establishment and among News of the World staff. Features editor Jules Stenson said the news was met with gasps and some tears.
"There was no lynch mob mentality, there was just a very shocked acceptance of the decision," he told reporters outside the company's London headquarters. "No one had any inkling."
David Wooding, the paper's editor, said the newsroom felt "like a bomb's hit the place. We didn't see it coming."
Rebekah Brooks, editor of News of the World at the time of the eavesdropping allegations, has maintained she did not know about it. James Murdoch said he was "satisfied she neither had knowledge of nor directed" the phone hacking.