Police chief says phone hacked, as News Corp scandal widens

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 12, 2011 9:59 AM
Police chief says phone hacked, as News Corp scandal widens

By Kate Holton and Georgina Prodhan

LONDON (Reuters) - A British police chief who investigated phone hacking by Rupert Murdoch's journalists said on Tuesday his own voicemails were probably spied on, but he denied a suggestion that this intimidated him into dropping the inquiry.

The spread of the scandal reshaping British politics and the media showed no sign of slowing; parliament summoned the global media magnate for questioning next week, along with the top executives of News Corp's British arm -- his son James and Rebekah Brooks, a former editor in the eye of the storm.

The crossfire of recrimination among press, politicians and police continued with an emotional charge from former prime minister Gordon Brown that Murdoch journalists hired "known criminals" to probe his private affairs at time when they were running stories about his finances and his baby son's illness.

London's Metropolitan Police has been under fire for failing to follow up inquiries into phone hacking by Murdoch's News of the World after the top-selling Sunday tabloid's royalty correspondent was jailed in 2007 for conspiring with a private investigator to listen in to the voicemails of royal aides.

Serving and former senior officers faced hostile questions from a parliamentary committee about allegations police sold information to journalists and may have been bribed or pressured to prevent investigations. Several tried to turn the tables, accusing Murdoch's News International of withholding evidence.

POLICE PHONES "HACKED"

Assistant Commissioner John Yates, who in 2009 rejected claims of much wider phone hacking and concluded there was not enough evidence to merit further inquiries, told the committee that he believed he himself had been a victim of hacking.

But he denied a suggestion that fear that this might lead to damaging stories about him in the press had influenced his decision to block a renewal of the investigations -- these were finally reopened in January this year after further allegations about News International practices in rival media.

"I am 99 percent certain my phone was hacked during the period of up to 2005-06," Yates told the lawmakers. But he called a suggestion that this had influenced his decision in 2009 "despicable" and "cowardly" -- "It is untrue," he said.

He said he did not know who had interfered with his phone.

The New York Times reported that five senior British police investigators discovered that their mobile phones also were targeted soon after Scotland Yard opened an initial criminal inquiry of phone hacking by News of the World in 2006.

Former Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke said News Corp's British newspaper arm relied on lawyers to "deliberately thwart" police: "If at any time News International had offered some meaningful cooperation instead of prevarication, and what we now know to be lies, we would not be here today."

Gordon Brown, his voice trembling, voiced concern about the actions of not just the News of the World, shut down by Murdoch after allegations last week that it hacked the phones of crime victims and the war dead, but also of Murdoch's tabloid daily the Sun and the broadsheet weekly the Sunday Times.

"My tax returns went missing at one point, medical records have been broken into. I don't know how all this happened but I do know ... that in two of these instances there is absolute proof that News International was involved in hiring people to get this information," Brown told the BBC in an interview.

"And I do know also that the people that they work with are criminals, criminals with records, criminals who sometimes have records of violence as well as records of fraud."

In one striking allegation, a lawyer for a police detective said he was planning to sue News International for hacking his phone and following him during a case with only an indirect link to the newspaper group. The detective alleges he was harassed while probing a notorious axe murder, in which a prime suspect was working as an investigator for the News of the World.

POLITICAL INFLUENCE

Brown had not spoken out on the allegations before, though he was finance minister and later premier from 2007 to 2010.

"I have only found out the links between the Sunday Times and what I would call elements of the criminal underworld who were being paid, while known criminals, to do work that was the most disgusting of work not against me only but against people who were completely defenseless," he said.

Political leaders from both Brown's center-left Labour party and the Conservatives who took power last year under Prime Minister David Cameron have been criticized -- notably by Cameron himself -- for being so in thrall to press barons' grip on the electorate that they failed to challenge media excesses.

Brown and his Labour predecessor Tony Blair won endorsement from some Murdoch titles after Labour's 18 years in opposition, an important element many Labour officials believed in returning the party to power in 1997.

Cameron has faced pointed questions about his ties to the Murdoch empire, notably his hiring of former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his spokesman, and his friendship with Brooks, who edited the same paper from 2000 to 2003 -- a time to which some of the gravest hacking allegations relate.

Coulson was arrested and bailed on Friday on suspicion of conspiracy to intercept communications and to pay bribes. He, like Brooks, has denied knowing of any wrongdoing.

The closure of the 168-year-old News of the World has been widely seen as designed by Rupert and James Murdoch as a way of limiting the damage the scandal is causing to News Corp's $14-billion bid for the 61 percent of British pay-TV broadcaster BSkyB it does not already own.

By withdrawing on Monday an assurance to media regulators that BSkyB would hive off its Sky News operation after a takeover -- an assurance originally intended to smooth the progress of the bid -- Murdoch ensured the government would refer the offer to the competition watchdog.

Analysts said the company may hope that a lengthy review will allow political opposition to the deal to subside.

News Corp shares nevertheless closed down about 7.58 percent at $15.48 in U.S. trading on Monday, for a fall of almost 15 percent in four days, and the stream of allegations continued.

They rose some 5 percent in pre-trading on Tuesday after the company, which also owns Fox television and the Wall Street Journal in the United States, announced it would buy back $5 billion of its own stock over the coming year.

(Additional reporting by Paul Sandle, Keith Weir, Tim Castle, Sudip Kar-Gupta, Sinead Cruise, Chris Vellacott, Michael Holden and Karolina Tagaris in London and JoAnne Allen in Washington; Writing by Alastair Macdonald)