LONDON // The UK parliament could deliver a potentially fatal blow to Rupert Murdoch's ambitions to expand his media empire in Britain with a vote on Wednesday over the phone-hacking scandal at his News of the World newspaper.
As Mr Murdoch flew into London yesterday afternoon to take personal charge of the crisis brought about by phone hacking by the News of the World, the Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, said he would force a parliamentary vote over the US-based News Corp's bid to buy the 61 per cent of the UK satellite broadcaster BSkyB that it does not already own.
Although the wording of Mr Miliband's motion is yet to be worked out, it will basically say that the takeover should be blocked until the latest police investigation into the scandal at the Sunday tabloid, which published its last edition yesterday, is complete - a process that could take years.
Although the vote would not be binding on the government, it is considered inconceivable that ministers would approve the takeover if the motion were passed.
Currently, the takeover decision rests with the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, whose decision in law is based solely on whether the deal would adversely affect the plurality of media ownership in Britain. He has previously indicated that he was "minded" to approve it.
But opponents of the deal, including the bulk of Liberal Democrats, the Conservative prime minister David Cameron's coalition partners, want the Office of Communications to step in and declare that, because of the ongoing hacking scandal, Mr Murdoch is not a "fit and proper" person to run the broadcaster.
Any move to block the BSkyB deal is thought likely to have ramifications for Mr Murdoch's plans to expand his television interests elsewhere in Europe and in Asia.
Mr Miliband warned Mr Cameron yesterday that he would force the vote on Wednesday unless the prime minister stepped in beforehand to ensure the Sky deal is put on hold.
"He has got to understand," Mr Miliband told the BBC, "that when the public have seen the disgusting revelations that we have seen, the idea that this organisation, which engaged in these terrible practices, should be allowed to take over BSkyB, to get that 100 per cent stake, without the criminal investigation having been completed and on the basis of assurances from that self-same organisation - frankly, that just won't wash with the public."
Mr Miliband is hoping for support not only from the Liberal Democrats but also some Conservative MPs who have become increasingly uneasy about the takeover as the revelations of phone hacking have expanded over the past week to embrace not just politicians and celebrities, but child murder victims and families of British soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, Simon Hughes, called on Labour yesterday to consult with other parties in a bid to formulate a parliamentary motion that could be widely supported.
"I would suggest if Labour want our support they come and talk to us about that but if a motion can be formulated that can command wider than Labour Party support, that isn't a partisan Labour motion, then I would think they would get wider support," he told Sky News. "My recommendation to my colleagues - and it's not my final decision, it's a parliamentary party decision - would be that we as a parliamentary party make clear that it is our view that the merger should not go ahead until the criminal investigations are completed."
All of this could make the situation dramatically worse for Mr Murdoch, who was taken to the London headquarters of News International, the UK publishing arm of his empire, immediately after his plane landed. TV footage showed the 80-year-old News Corp chief executive being driven into News International seated in a Range Rover with a copy of the last issue of the Sunday tabloid in his hands.
The BSkyB takeover has now become the main political battleground of the hacking scandal, with many campaigners claiming that the decision to close the News of the World was based solely on a desire to save the deal.
Even Phil Hammond, a Conservative cabinet minister, conceded yesterday that the idea of the takeover going through while criminal inquiries were in progress raised serious concerns.
But he told Sky News that the government was constrained by law, and insisted that Mr Hunt could only approve or reject the deal on the plurality issue.
"He [Mr Miliband] should know as well an anyone that the government has to operate within the law - that there are proper processes that have to be followed," he said.
Meanwhile, the final edition of the News of the World, which was Britain best-selling newspaper, signed off yesterday with an apology.
"We praised high standards, we demanded high standards," it said, "but, as we are now only too painfully aware, for a period of a few years up to 2006 some who worked for us, or in our name, fell shamefully short of those standards.
"Quite simply, we lost our way. Phones were hacked, and for that this newspaper is truly sorry."