LONDON — The country's top police officer resigned Sunday and Rupert Murdoch's former aide Rebekah Brooks was arrested as the phone hacking scandal finally tore into the heart of the establishment.
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Paul Stephenson said he was quitting due to speculation about his links to Murdoch's empire and the force's botched investigation into hacking at the now-defunct News of the World tabloid.
His shock announcement came just hours after police arrested Brooks -- who resigned on Friday as head of News International, Murdoch's newspaper arm -- on suspicion of phone-hacking and bribing police.
"I have taken this decision as a consequence of the ongoing speculation and accusations relating to the Met's links with News International at a senior level," Stephenson said in a hastily arranged televised statement.
Stephenson was linked to former News of the World deputy editor Neil Wallis in reports Sunday which said the police chief accepted a five-week stay earlier this year at a luxury health spa where Wallis was a PR consultant.
The force, which reopened the investigation into hacking in January, six years after it first broke, is already facing questions about why it hired Wallis as an advisor two months after he quit the tabloid.
Wallis was arrested last week.
"Let me state clearly, I and the people who know me know that my integrity is completely intact," Stephenson added. "I may wish we had done some things differently, but I will not lose sleep over my personal integrity."
The scandal first emerged when two people were convicted over phone hacking at the News of the World in 2006, but did not explode until July 4 when it emerged that one of the victims was a murdered teenager, Milly Dowler.
The flame-haired Brooks, one of Murdoch's closest lieutenants, was editor of the News of the World at the time that Dowler's voicemail messages were hacked and deleted.
Murdoch closed the paper on Sunday, starting a week of chaos in which he had to abandon his bid for control of pay-TV giant BSkyB and accept the resignations on Friday of both Brooks and Dow Jones chief Les Hinton, who had worked with him for 52 years.
Confirming Brooks' arrest on Sunday, her spokesman David Wilson said her detention "came as a surprise" after she attended an appointment at a London police station.
He warned it could affect her planned testimony before British lawmakers on Tuesday over the spiralling scandal alongside Murdoch and his son James, the chairman of News International.
"At the moment today's events do somewhat change potentially her ability to attend the hearing. There will be discussions between her lawyers and the select committee over the next 24 to 36 hours," Wilson told AFP.
"The fact that she has been arrested clearly has implications and so it is by no means a certainty that she will be able to attend, despite wishing to," he added.
He said senior officers had told Brooks earlier in the week that she would not be arrested.
Scotland Yard confirmed that a 43-year-old woman "was arrested by appointment at a London police station by officers" on Sunday and was in custody.
It said she was held "in connection with allegations of corruption and phone hacking".
Brooks, 43, is the 10th person and most senior Murdoch aide to be arrested over the scandal so far. At a previous hearing in 2003 she admitted the paper had made payments to police.
Opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband piled on the pressure by calling for Murdoch's British media interests to be dismantled, telling the Observer newspaper: "I think he has too much power over British public life."
Abandoning his earlier defiance, Murdoch placed ads in most of Sunday newspapers for a second day, this time entitled "Putting right what's gone wrong" and promising to fully cooperate with police.
Prime Minister David Cameron has meanwhile faced questions about his decision to invite his former media chief Andy Coulson, another ex-News of the World editor, to his country residence in March, two months after Coulson quit Downing Street.
Coulson was arrested and bailed by police earlier this month.
The hacking scandal is also being investigated by the FBI in the United States.
© AFP 2013