Murdoch defends papers as Cameron pledges hacking probe

LONDON,  (Reuters) – Rupert Murdoch promised full  cooperation yesterday to resolve a scandal shaking his media  empire after British Prime Minister David Cameron promised an  inquiry into what he called “disgusting” phone hacking by a  newspaper.

Rupert Murdoch

Responding in parliament to allegations that the News of the  World eavesdropped on voicemail for victims of notorious crimes,  including child murders and suicide bombings, Cameron said he  was “revolted” and would order inquiries, probably into both the  specific case and more widely into Britain’s cut-throat media.

The opposition, keen to highlight Cameron’s own ties to  Murdoch and to two former editors at the eye of the storm, noted  that any inquiry would not start, let alone finish, for months  if not years. Critics accused the Conservative government of  trying to bury the embarrassment of the long-running saga.
Murdoch, whose News International group faces boycotts from  advertisers and readers as well as questions over a takeover bid  for broadcaster BSkyB , made a rare public statement to  say he too found the hacking, and reports of buying tips from  police, “deplorable and unacceptable” and would ensure  transparency.

But the 80-year-old Australian-born American media magnate  made clear he was standing by Rebekah Brooks, the 43-year-old  head of his British newspaper operation. She was editor in 2002  when, police say, a News of the World investigator listened to  — and deleted — voicemails left for the cellphone of missing  13-year-old Milly Dowler, who was later found murdered.

Cameron said: “We do need to have an inquiry, possibly  inquiries, into what has happened.” The prime minister faces  questions over his own judgment in appointing Brooks’s successor  as editor, Andy Coulson, as his spokesman. Coulson quit   Cameron’s office in January, but denies knowing of any hacking.

Cameron, who regularly hosts Brooks at his home, said: “We  are talking about murder victims, potentially terrorist victims,  having their phones hacked into. It is absolutely disgusting.”        In a further twist to the affair, a spokesman for Finance  Minister George Osborne confirmed media reports that police had  told the senior cabinet minister that his name and home number  were in notes kept by two people jailed for phone hacking.

“FULLY COOPERATE”

Murdoch said in his statement: “Recent allegations of phone  hacking and making payments to police with respect to the News  of the World are deplorable and unacceptable.

“I have made clear that our company must fully and  proactively cooperate with the police in all investigations and  that is exactly what News International has been doing and will  continue to do under Rebekah Brooks’ leadership.”

The leader of the opposition Labour party, Ed Miliband, said  Cameron had made a “catastrophic error of judgment” in hiring  Coulson as his communication director and said Brooks, a  high-flying Murdoch confidante, should resign her current post.  She says she knew of no illegal hacking while editing the paper.

When its royal correspondent and an investigator were jailed  in 2007 for hacking into the cellphones of royal aides to break  a story about an injury to Prince William’s knee, the newspaper  insisted it was a case of one rogue reporter.

After campaigning by celebrities and politicians who  suspected they too had been spied on, police launched a new  inquiry in January and, following the arrests of several  journalists, the affair has taken on dramatic new proportions.

Shares in Murdoch’s News Corp, which also controls Fox  television, the Wall Street Journal, London’s Times and the New  York Post among other titles, were down over 5 percent in New  York, while shares in BSkyB fell more than 2 percent.

Major advertisers abandoned the News of the World.

Speaking for one carmaker Lance Bradley said: “Mitsubishi  Motors in the UK considers this type of activity — especially  in such a distressing case — to be unbelievable, unspeakable  and despicable … This is where we draw the line.”

Internet campaigns and the actor Hugh Grant urged readers to  boycott the paper which, if successful, may prove more damaging  than political condemnation to Britain’s best-selling Sunday  paper, read by some 7.5 million people on sales of 2.6 million.

Sales of News Corp’s daily sister paper the Sun never  recovered in Liverpool after it offended the city’s football  fans in the wake of the 1989 Hillsborough stadium disaster.

“We need an inquiry that uncovers all the practices and the  culture, not just of the News of the World but all tabloid  journalism in this country,” said Grant, a fixture of the gossip  columns, who says he was a victim of phone hacking.

BROADCASTER BID

Though analysts believe the chances of the BSkyB purchase  being derailed are slim, the watchdog which oversees Britain’s  broadcasting industry issued a statement pointing out that it  had a duty to assess whether holders of a broadcasting licence  are ‘fit and proper’. Murdoch is trying to buy the 61 percent of  the BSkyB pay-TV group that it does not already own.

“There has been a shift in the last three days, there is now  a consensus that this needs full and proper scrutiny,” media  consultant Steve Hewlett told Reuters.

Police have been criticised for being slow to investigate  the phone-hacking claims but reject suggestions this was because  of alleged payments to officers. The head of the Metropolitan  Police Paul Stephenson said allegations of “inappropriate  payments” to some officers were under investigation.

British politicians have said in the past they feared  criticising any of the Murdoch papers because they feared their  own private lives might be exposed.

Among further allegations, families of Londoners killed by  Islamist suicide bombers in 2005 said police had told them their  voicemail messages may have been intercepted.

Graham Foulkes, whose son David was one of 52 people who  died in the 7/7 bombings, told BBC radio he was contacted by  police after they found his private contact details on a list as  part of the investigation into hacking claims.

“We were using the phone frantically trying to get  information about David and where he may have been and …  talking very intimately about very personal issues, and the  thought that these guys may have been listening to that is just  horrendous,” Foulkes said. Relatives are preparing to mark the  sixth anniversary of the attacks on Thursday.

News International said it would be contacting the Defence  Ministry about reports the phone numbers of British soldiers  killed in Iraq and Afghanistan were found in the files of a  private investigator jailed for hacking phones.       “If these allegations are true we are absolutely appalled    and horrified,” it said in a statement.

On Tuesday the company said new information had been  provided to police. The BBC said the material related to e-mails  appearing to show payments to police officers for information  and were authorised by Coulson when he was editor.

Commentators suggested information about the payments had  been released to deflect attention from Brooks, who unlike  Coulson is still a key part of Murdoch’s business. The Guardian,  a left-leaning daily which has taken a lead in investigating the  scandal, said News International would also be saying that  Brooks was on holiday at the time of key alleged incidents.

“If Rebekah falls then who is next? Well it’s James  Murdoch,” said media consultant Hewlett, suggesting that keeping  her in her position served to protect her superior, Murdoch’s  son James, from criticism. “This feels to me like a firewall.”

Media commentator Stephen Barnett said Brooks’s position  seemed at risk but that Murdoch would likely support her: “If  she has 100 percent backing of Rupert Murdoch then clearly she  is untouchable and more importantly it shows that Murdoch  himself thinks the company is untouchable,” he said.
The Guardian said police investigating the phone-hacking  claims were now turning their attention to all high-profile  cases involving the murder or abduction of children since 2001.

The key allegation is that journalists, or investigators  hired by them, took advantage of often limited password security  on mobile phone voice mailboxes to listen to messages left for  celebrities or people involved in major stories.

What has particularly outraged many was the suggestion, made  by police to the family of Milly Dowler, that a News of the  World investigator not only hacked into her mailbox during the  six months of 2002 that she was missing but also deleted  messages to make room for more — misleading police and giving  her family false hope she was still alive and well.

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