Hacking scandal fells Britain’s top policeman

LONDON, (Reuters) – A phone-hacking scandal centred  on Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp cost Britain’s top policeman his job and renewed questions yesterday about Prime  Minister David Cameron’s judgment.

Paul Stephenson

In another major development in a scandal that has shaken  Britons’ faith in the police, press and political leaders,  detectives arrested Rebekah Brooks, former head of News Corp’s  British newspaper arm, on suspicion of intercepting  communications and corruption.

The flame-haired Brooks, who once edited the News of the  World tabloid, was released on bail at midnight yesterday, about  12 hours after she went to a London police station to be  arrested, her spokesman said. Brooks has denied any wrongdoing.

Analysts said the gathering pace of heads rolling had turned  up the heat on Cameron and Murdoch over their handling of the  scandal, with the media tycoon due to be questioned by  parliament in a possible showdown tomorrow.

The News of the World, which published its final edition a  week ago, is alleged to have hacked up to 4,000 phones including  that of murdered 13-year-old Milly Dowler, sparking a furore that forced Murdoch to close the paper and drop a $12 billion  plan to buy all of highly profitable broadcaster BSkyB .

Rebekah Brooks

Paul Stephenson, London’s police commissioner, quit yesterday in the face of allegations that police officers had  accepted money from the paper and had not done enough to  investigate hacking charges that surfaced as far back as 2005.

The trigger for his resignation was revelations he had  stayed at a luxury spa at which Neil Wallis, a former News of  the World deputy editor, was a public relations adviser. Wallis,  also employed by police as a consultant, was arrested last week  in connection with the hacking scandal.

“I had no knowledge of the extent of this disgraceful  practice (of phone-hacking),” Stephenson said in a televised  statement.

Brooks quit on Friday as chief executive of News  International, the British unit of Murdoch’s News Corp,  but has denied she knew of the alleged widespread nature of the  hacking.

The scandal has raised concerns not only about unethical  media practices but about the influence Murdoch has wielded over  British political leaders and allegations of cosy relationships  between some of his journalists and police.

Cameron has come under fire for his friendship with Brooks  and for employing former News of the World editor Andy Coulson  as his press secretary after Coulson quit the paper in 2007  following the jailing of a reporter for phone-hacking.

Tim Bale, politics professor at the University of Sussex,  said: “It has become almost a crisis of governance in the United  Kingdom. (Stephenson’s) resignation takes us beyond a few bad  apples …  There is a sense of things sliding out of control.

“The actual text of (Stephenson’s) statement pointing to parallels between himself and the prime minister is quite  breathtaking. It won’t make Mr Cameron do the same thing, but it  reminds people once again of the Coulson problem.”

The opposition Labour Party, which has capitalised on  Cameron’s discomfort, seized on Stephenson’s reference to the Coulson appointment in his resignation speech.

“It is striking that Sir Paul Stephenson has taken  responsibility and answered questions about the appointment of  the deputy editor of the News of the World,” Labour home affairs  spokeswoman Yvette Cooper said.

“The prime minister still refuses to recognise his  misjudgment and answer questions on the appointment of the  editor of the News of the World at the time of the initial phone  hacking investigation.”

Cameron took office last May at the head of a Conservative-led coalition that has made cleaning up the public  finances its priority.

GLOBAL CONCERN

With politicians from Australia to the United States demanding to know if similar abuses occurred elsewhere in Murdoch’s global media business, the 80-year-old has been forced  on the defensive and the position of his son James as  heir-apparent has been called into question.

Brooks and Rupert and James Murdoch are due to be questioned  by parliament tomorrow, including over reports that News  International misled legislators during earlier hearings.

But Brooks’s spokesman said her arrest might cast doubt on  whether she could appear before politicians.

“Anything that will be said at the select committee hearing  could have implications for the police inquiry,” said David  Wilson, adding Brooks was “shocked” by the arrest.

The Financial Times reported yesterday that Labour  legislator Tom Watson had written to the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) asking it to investigate payments he alleged were made by  News Corp to cover up the scandal.

A SFO spokesman said he did not know if the letter had been  received but that the agency would take such a request “very  seriously”.

Brooks became the focus of widespread anger over the  phone-hacking scandal but was initially protected by Murdoch,  who guided her rise through the male-dominated world of UK  tabloid journalism to become editor of the News of the World in  2000 and the Sun’s first female editor in 2003.

But her initial refusal to quit, and a faltering speech she  delivered when she closed the News of the World and ended the  careers of dozens of colleagues, prompted some journalists to  say she was out of touch.

In 2003, Brooks said the News of the World had made payments  to police in the past but could not remember any specific  examples.

Murdoch, who some media commentators say at first misjudged  the strength of public anger, published apologies in several  British newspapers at the weekend.

He lost another loyal executive on Friday when Les Hinton,  another former head of his UK newspaper business, resigned as  chief executive of Murdoch’s Dow Jones & Co which publishes The Wall Street Journal.

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