At first, it appeared media mogul Rupert Murdoch just wouldn’t allow it. He looked on News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks almost as a daughter — and no growing phone-hacking scandal, no rousing resignation calls from every quarter would stand in the way of her continued service to the British subsidiary of his mega-conglomerate News Corp. But today, Brooks handed in her letter of resignation and Murdoch accepted it.

One of the most influential women in Britain until the scandal broke wide open last week, Brooks said in a statement that she was stepping down as chief executive of News International because she had become a “focal point” in the scandal and therefore a distraction to efforts to repair the damage. …

The company is the British subsidiary of Murdoch’s giant News Corp. and owns such storied titles as the Times of London and the Sun tabloid. Until this past Sunday, the weekly News of the World, Britain’s bestselling newspaper, was also one of the company’s holdings. But News International abruptly shut it down after 168 years of existence because of allegations that it ordered the hacking of cellphones belonging to a wide swath of British society, including celebrities, politicians and crime victims. …

The most explosive phone-hacking accusation emerged last week: that a private investigator hired by the paper illegally accessed and deleted voicemail messages belonging to a kidnapped girl named Milly Dowler in 2002. The 13-year-old was later found slain, but the deleted messages had given her family false hope that she was still alive, because they thought she erased the messages herself.

Brooks was editor of the News of the World at the time of the incident.

Brooks’ resignation is a solid fact among the emerging details of the phone hacking scandal, details that still seem too tenuous to serve as a solid basis for any kind of analysis or prediction as to what the consequences of the scandal might be for News Corp. More clarity on that might come with Murdoch and son’s impending appearance before Parliament or with the U.S.-based FBI investigation of the reported attempted hacking of the phones and voicemails of 9/11 victims, survivors and their families.

But even the implications of Brooks’ resignation aren’t completely clear. Does it mean she takes responsibility for the phone hacking? Or does it mean just what she said — that she doesn’t want to be a distraction as the company attempts to fix the “mistakes of the past”?

It’s possible the poor decision-making began and ended with individual journalists, but it could also be a sign of low journalistic standards companywide. That’s always been the criticism of Murdoch’s empire, after all — that it’s based on brilliant business strategies, but questionable journalism. Murdoch stands by News Corp. and says he’ll defend it from outright lies when he appears before Parliament. And at least one friend of Murdoch defends him as “a very honorable, honest man” who couldn’t possibly have had knowledge of the phone hacking. But competitors haven’t hesitated to try to drum up backlash to the growing story. Murdoch has a fight with few allies ahead, no doubt.

In the meantime, what Brooks wrote in her resignation letter serves as a potent reminder to all journalists that they don’t act in a vacuum, of the time-honored truth that “with freedom comes great responsibility.” “The reputation of the company we love so much, as well as the press freedoms we value so highly, are all at risk,” she wrote. Blatantly irresponsible journalism invites increased government intervention into the news media, a scary, scary prospect. I so hope the News International scandal was the work of a few and not symptomatic of any kind of company culture that could “justify” some kind of government crackdown in either Britain or here, where News Corp. is a publicly held company.