Phone hacking scandal

Murdoch facing Parliament's ire in hacking case

Britain's Parliament on Wednesday collectively turned on Rupert Murdoch, the head of the News Corporation, and the tabloid culture he represents, using a debate about a widening phone hacking scandal to denounce reporting tactics by newspapers once seen as too politically influential to challenge.

But though he joined in the chorus of outrage, PM David Cameron, whose Conservative Party benefits from Mr. Murdoch's support, stopped short of calling for an immediate investigation into behavior by the Murdoch-owned News of the World and other tabloids. Such an inquiry would have to wait, he said, until the police had concluded their own criminal investigation.

From all sides of the House of Commons the disgust came thick and fast, as the legislators recited the most recent allegations against The News of the World: that its executives had paid police officers, lied to Parliament and hired investigators to intercept voice mail messages left on the cellphones of murdered children and terrorism victims. Legislators also attacked the news media in general for employing many of the same tactics.

The scandal posed new hurdles for Mr. Murdoch's proposed $12bn takeover of the pay-television company British Sky Broadcasting, as many legislators criticized the deal, and Britain's media regulatory agency, Ofcom, said it was "closely monitoring the situation."

"We have let one man have far too great a sway over our national life," said Chris Bryant, a Labour member of Parliament. In addition to The News of the World, Mr. Murdoch's media holdings include The Times of London; The Sun; and a large stake in BSkyB, as it is called, as well as several other international newspapers and television networks.

Meanwhile, John Whittingdale, the Conservative chairman of the House of Commons culture and media committee, rehearsed in tones of high indignation how executives from The News of the World and its parent company, News International, had thwarted legislators' efforts to get to the bottom of the phone hacking affair by stonewalling, refusing to testify and even lying outright during parliamentary hearings.

Zac Goldsmith, another Conservative legislator, said that Mr. Murdoch was guilty of "systemic abuse of almost unprecedented power" and had run roughshod over Parliament.

"There is nothing noble in what these newspapers have been doing," he said. "Rupert Murdoch is clearly a very, very talented businessman — he's possibly even a genius — but his organization has grown too powerful and has abused that power. It has systematically corrupted the police and in my view has gelded this Parliament, to our shame."

A number of legislators, including Nicholas Soames, a Conservative, said Wednesday that in light of the recent developments, the government should intervene to delay or even stop Mr. Murdoch's plan to acquire all the shares of BSkyB.

"I urge the government to look at whether we should pause things given what has come to light," said Anna Soubry, a Conservative member of Parliament.

Before this week, the deal had passed virtually every government hurdle. But Ofcom, the media regulator, said in a statement that it was watching developments in the case, "and in particular the investigations by the relevant authorities into the alleged unlawful activities."

Many legislators also focused their outrage on Rebekah Brooks, a former News of the World editor who is now News International's chief executive and a protégé of Mr. Murdoch. She is a close friend of Mr. Cameron's — the two have country houses near each other and have often socialized — and has been a strong champion of his premiership.

Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, said flatly that Ms. Brooks should resign.

But Ms. Brooks said she would stay put, and on Wednesday her boss, Mr. Murdoch, took the unusual step of issuing a statement on the matter.

Calling the recent allegations involving phone hacking and paying off the police "deplorable and unacceptable," Mr. Murdoch pledged that the company would "fully and proactively cooperate with the police in all investigations." He added: "That is exactly what News International has been doing and will continue to do under Rebekah Brooks's leadership."

He said that Joel I. Klein, the former New York City schools chancellor and current head of the News Corporation's education unit, would "provide important oversight and guidance" in the company's response to the investigations.

New allegations swirled around Ms. Brooks's old paper, The News of the World, including reports that it might have hacked into the voice mail messages of murdered children and victims of the 2005 London subway bombings.

On Tuesday, The Guardian reported that the phone of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old girl murdered in 2002, was hacked by The News of the World after she disappeared but before her body was found, hampering the police investigation and adding to the distress of her parents.

On Wednesday, the father of a man who was killed in the 2005 terrorist attacks on the London subways said that he had been contacted by the police as a possible hacking victim. The man, Graham Foulkes, said he had been informed that numerous personal details, including his phone number, had been found in notes seized from Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator who was jailed in 2007 for hacking into the phones of aides to the royal family on behalf of The News of the World.

It was not clear whether his own phone was actually hacked after the 2005 attacks, Mr. Foulkes told the BBC, but the idea filled him with revulsion.

After the explosions, he said, it was some time before he knew that his son, David, had indeed been killed. "We were in a very dark place, and we were using the phone frantically trying to get information about David and where he may have been," he told the BBC. "We were talking a lot to family and friends and talking very personally, about very intimate issues. The thought that these guys may have been listening is just horrendous. It fills me with horror."

In a separate development, news reports this week indicated that Andy Coulson, editor of The News of the World in the mid-2000s, appeared to have authorized illegal payments to police officers during his time at the paper. News International has confirmed that the information is contained in e-mails it has disclosed to the police.

A person with knowledge of the matter said that it appeared that other senior News of the World journalists were also involved, but that Ms. Brooks was not among them.

The disclosure is relevant because of Mr. Coulson's close ties to the Conservative Party. After resigning from The News of the World in 2007 after an earlier phone hacking investigation, Mr. Coulson was quickly hired by Mr. Cameron as the Conservative Party's chief spokesman. The move gave Mr. Cameron an in with Britain's tabloids, and cemented his ties to Mr. Murdoch's empire.

Mr. Coulson's canny approach helped Mr. Cameron get elected last year, and he was installed as the government's chief spokesman. But in January he resigned from that job, too, when it became clear that phone hacking had been routine when he was The News of the World's editor. Mr. Coulson has always denied knowing about hacking; these new disclosures are the first to link him directly to any wrongdoing. In Parliament, Mr. Miliband, the Labour leader, assailed Mr. Cameron for a "catastrophic error of judgment by bringing Andy Coulson into the heart of his Downing Street machine."

It is unclear how the recent developments will affect The News of the World financially, but numerous advertisers, including Ford, the Halifax bank, Vauxhall, Mitsubishi and Virgin Holidays, have announced plans to suspend advertising in the paper. Thousands of people took to Facebook and Twitter not only to express their outrage over the hacking allegations but also to put pressure on companies to withdraw their advertising dollars from The News of the World.

In a statement, the Cooperative Group, a food retailer and financial services provider, said that it, too, had decided to suspend its advertising. The company said that it "adheres to strong ethical standards," and that the allegations had been "met with revulsion by the vast majority" of people who have contacted it.

(Published by NY Times - July 6, 2011)

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