LONDON // Britain's biggest-selling newspaper is to close in the face of a mounting backlash over a phone-tapping scandal.
James Murdoch, the son of Rupert Murdoch who oversees the family media empire in Europe and Asia, announced late yesterday that Sunday's edition of the News of the World would be its last.
The surprise decision to close the tabloid, which sells more than 2.6 million copies every Sunday and has a readership of almost 7.5 million, came just hours after Scotland Yard revealed that detectives were looking at almost 4,000 potential victims of phone hacking by the newspaper's staff.
Mr Murdoch's decision also came as increasing numbers of major advertisers cancelled contracts with the UK parent company, News International. Earlier in the day, the government revealed that it, too, was urgently considering its advertising contract with the News of the World.
In a statement to staff, Mr Murdoch said that he had to act to "address the very serious problems that have occurred".
He added: "You do not need to be told that The News of the World is 168 years old. That it is read by more people than any other English language newspaper. That it has enjoyed support from Britain's largest advertisers. And that it has a proud history of fighting crime, exposing wrongdoing and regularly setting the news agenda for the nation.
"The good things the News of the World does, however, have been sullied by behaviour that was wrong. Indeed, if recent allegations are true, it was inhuman and has no place in our company.
"The News of the World is in the business of holding others to account. But it failed when it came to itself."
Mr Murdoch said that the newspaper's management was now fully co-operating with police into the hacking allegations and claims that tens of thousands of pounds had been paid by the newspaper to police detectives as bribes.
"Having consulted senior colleagues," he said, "I have decided that we must take further decisive action with respect to the paper.
"This Sunday will be the last issue of the News of the World. In addition, I have decided that all of the News of the World's revenue this weekend will go to good causes."
A spokesman for the UK prime minister, David Cameron, immediately declared that the government had played no part in the closure decision.
There was speculation, however, that the News of the World might soon be replaced by another News International title, perhaps a Sunday edition of the UK's best-selling daily, The Sun.
It is understood that two new web domains, thesunonsunday.com and thesunonsunday.co.uk, were registered by persons unknown on Tuesday.
News International says about 200 staff will be laid off and can apply for other company jobs.
News Corp, the global Murdoch media company, is also known to be desperate to get government approval for its bid to buy the 61 per cent of BSkyB, the UK's major satellite broadcaster, that it does not already own.
There were renewed calls in the House of Lords earlier yesterday for that takeover to be blocked because of the hacking scandal.
Although the affair first came to light in 2006, when the newspaper's royal correspondent and a private detective were exposed for hacking into the voicemails of Buckingham Palace staff, it was only on Tuesday that it generated outrage among the general public.
The Guardian newspaper disclosed that, in 2002, the phone belonging to Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old girl who was abducted as she walked home from school, was hacked. Six months later, after a massive police hunt, her body was found.
Amid general revulsion, it was subsequently disclosed that the phones of families of other murder victims had been tapped, along with relatives of people killed in suicide bombings in London six years ago, and even the parents of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Yesterday, Mr Cameron ordered a full public inquiry into the whole affair.
"Until this week, the victims seemed to be celebrities, publicists, politicians and other journalists - the sort of people who, in the British mind, probably deserve what they get," the Economist commented in this week's edition.
That all changed with the Milly Dowler revelation, said the magazine, adding: "Mr Murdoch is a ferocious businessman who has helped steer the media through a treacherous digital transition. But if it is proven that News Corporation's managers condoned lawbreaking, they should not be running any newspaper or television firm. They should be in prison."
A police investigation, which has already resulted in the arrest of several former News of the World journalists and which looks likely to lead to up to a half-dozen more being arrested in the coming days, is continuing along with News International's internal inquiry.
Tom Watson, a Labour MP who has vigorously campaigned for action against the newspaper, told Sky News: "Let's be clear about this, this paper has closed but the hacking saga has not.
"No one was going to buy this paper any more. No one was going to advertise in it. They destroyed it. The people who were hacking phones, they were the people who closed this paper."