Truthout

Error
  • JUser: :_load: Unable to load user with ID: 50

Cameron Calls in Parliament as the Hacking Scandal Grows

Monday, 18 July 2011 04:18 By Don Van Natta Jr and Sarah Lyall, The New York Times News Service | Report
  • font size decrease font size decrease font size increase font size increase font size
  • Print
  • Email

London - Prime Minister David Cameron cut short an African trip on Monday and ordered a special parliamentary session back home to debate the widening phone-hacking scandal just hours after Britain’s top police officer resigned and Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of Rupert Murdoch’s News International, was arrested on suspicion of illegally intercepting phone calls and bribing the police.

With the crisis convulsing the Murdoch empire and British public life, Mr. Cameron said Parliament would be extended beyond the start of its scheduled summer recess for an emergency session on Wednesday, a day after Mr. Murdoch, his son James and Ms. Brooks are set to testify to a parliamentary inquiry into the scandal.

The announcement came a day after Sir Paul Stephenson, commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service, commonly known as the Met, said that he had decided to step down because “the ongoing speculation and accusations relating to the Met’s links with News International at a senior level” had made it difficult for him to do his job.

But he said that he had done nothing wrong. He also said that because he had not been involved in the original phone-hacking investigation, he had had no idea that Neil Wallis, a former News of the World deputy editor who had become a public-relations consultant for the police after leaving the paper, was himself suspected of phone hacking, as the unauthorized accessing of voice mail is known.

Mr. Wallis, 60, was arrested last Thursday.

Commissioner Stephenson tried to deflect attention from his own role in the scandal by implicitly criticizing Mr. Cameron’s decision in 2009 to hire Andy Coulson, another former News of the World editor, as his own spokesman. At least Mr. Wallis had not resigned from the paper under a cloud, as Mr. Coulson had, the commissioner said. The crisis has exploded in the two weeks since reports that The News of the World ordered the hacking of the cellphone of a 13-year-old girl who had been abducted and murdered.

The prime minister, who has come under repeated attacks over his relationship with Mr. Coulson, defended himself on Monday.

“In terms of Andy Coulson, no one has argued that the work he did in government was in any way inappropriate or bad,” he said, speaking at a news conference in South Africa alongside President Jacob Zuma.

“The situation in the Metropolitan Police Service is really quite different to the situation in the government, not least because the issues that the Metropolitan Police are looking at, the issues around them, have had a direct bearing on public confidence into the police inquiry into The News of the World and indeed into the police themselves,” Mr. Cameron said.

Under pressure from the Labour opposition, the prime minister said Parliament would be called to a special session on Wednesday to “answer any questions that may arise” and “so I can make a further statement.”

Back in Britain, Ed Miliband, the leader of the opposition Labour Party and a persistent irritant to Mr. Cameron throughout the crisis, repeated his attacks on what he called the prime minister’s “spectacular error of judgment” in hiring Mr. Coulson, despite warnings about Mr. Coulson’s possibly murky past.

Answering reporters’ questions after a speech, Mr. Miliband compared Commissioner Stephenson’s decision to resign with Mr. Cameron’s repeated failure even to apologize for his decision to hire Mr. Coulson.

And he said  that, in Parliament on Wednesday, the prime minister should have to account not only for his relationship with Mr. Coulson, but also for his  relationships with Ms. Brooks and James Murdoch, head of the News Corporation’s operations in Europe and Asia, whom the prime minister saw socially even as his government was considering the Murdochs’ $12 billion takeover bid for full control of British Sky Broadcasting, Britain’s biggest satellite broadcaster. That bid has been withdrawn as a result of the crisis.

Earlier, Mr. Miliband also  accused the prime minister of picking a poor time to leave the country.

Perhaps sensitive to such criticism, Mr. Cameron announced on Monday that he would cut short his African trip, canceling plans to visit Sudan and Rwanda, and instead return home to take charge. But, he said, “I think it right for Britain to be engaged with South Africa and to be engaged with Africa as a whole.” He is leading a business delegation.

He also declared that he was still in control of the situation. “Just because you are traveling to Africa doesn’t mean you’ve lost contact with your office,” he said.

Perhaps sensitive to such criticism, Mr. Cameron announced on Monday that he would cut short his African trip, canceling plans to visit Sudan and Rwanda, and instead return home to take charge. But, he said, “I think it right for Britain to be engaged with South Africa and to be engaged with Africa as a whole.” He is leading a business delegation.

He also declared that he was still in control of the situation. “Just because you are traveling to Africa doesn’t mean you’ve lost contact with your office,” he said.

Also Monday, it emerged that Ms. Brooks had spent about nine hours after her arrest being questioned by the police. She was released around midnight and ordered to reappear for further questions in the fall, standard practice in such cases.

A consummate networker who has always been assiduously courted by politicians and whose friends include Mr. Cameron, Ms. Brooks, 43, is the 10th and by far the most powerful person to be arrested so far in the phone-hacking scandal.

Click here to sign up for Truthout’s daily email updates.

Her arrest is bound to be particularly wounding to Rupert Murdoch, who, asked early last week to identify his chief priority in the affair, pointed to Ms. Brooks and said, “This one.”

Ms. Brooks has not yet been formally charged, but it is significant that she was questioned in connection with two separate investigations. One, called Operation Weeting, is examining allegations of widespread phone hacking at The News of the World, the tabloid at the center of the scandal, where Ms. Brooks was editor from 2000 to 2003. The other is Operation Elveden, which is looking into charges that News International editors paid police officers for information.

A lawyer acting for her, Stephen Parkinson, said on Monday that Ms. Brooks was “not guilty of any criminal offense” and that the police were wrong to arrest her, given the damage to her reputation.

“They put no allegations to her and showed her no documents connecting her with any crime,” he said in a statement. “They will in due course have to give an account of their actions.”

Ms. Brooks has always maintained that she was unaware of wrongdoing at The News of the World, which was summarily closed by Mr. Murdoch a week ago in an unsuccessful damage-control exercise. But the tide rose against her, and on Friday she resigned, saying in a statement that her presence was “detracting attention” from the company.

The arrest was a shock to the News Corporation, the parent company of News International, and the other properties in Mr. Murdoch’s media empire, which is reeling from the traumas of last week: the forced withdrawal of its cherished $12 billion takeover bid for British Sky Broadcasting and the resignations not only of Ms. Brooks but also of Les Hinton, a longtime Murdoch ally and friend who was the chairman of Dow Jones and the publisher of The Wall Street Journal.

Speaking of Ms. Brooks, an official at News International said: “When she resigned on Friday, we were not aware that she would be arrested by the police.” Another person briefed on the News Corporation’s plans said that on Friday, when the company was preparing to announce her exit and the departure in New York of Mr. Hinton, the possibility of her arrest was not discussed.

Investor unease about the scandal appeared to be affecting News Corporation shares, which were down nearly 6 percent in early Monday trading on the Australian exchange in Sydney.

Until Ms. Brooks arrived at a London police station by prearranged appointment on Sunday, she believed she would merely be helping the police as a witness, her spokesman said.

“She was very surprised, I think, to then be arrested,” said the spokesman, David Wilson, chairman of the Bell Pottinger public relations firm. Mr. Wilson said it all happened so quickly that both her lawyer and he were brought in to handle her case over the weekend.

Ms. Brooks was arrested “under caution,” he said, meaning that she was read her rights and treated as a suspect. “She maintains her innocence, absolutely,” he said. She was released on bail after about 12 hours in police custody, news services reported. For months, Ms. Brooks had been willing to talk to the police but had been rebuffed, Mr. Wilson said. “As recently as last week, she was told she wasn’t required to do so and she wasn’t on their radar.”

No formal charges have yet been brought against Ms. Brooks, or indeed against any of the others — mostly former editors and reporters at The News of the World — arrested in the phone-hacking case so far. These include Mr. Coulson, who resigned as the paper’s editor in 2007, was then hired by the Conservative Party, and most recently worked as the chief spokesman for Mr. Cameron’s government. Under British law, suspects can be detained 24 to 36 hours without being charged.

Sir Paul, who took over the top police job in 2009, stepped down in large part because of a furor over his contacts with News International officials. The New York Times reported over the weekend that he met for meals 18 times with News International executives and editors during the phone-hacking investigation, and that other top other police officials had had similar meetings.

These included meeting Mr. Wallis eight times while he was still working at The News of the World. Both Theresa May, the home secretary, and Boris Johnson, the London mayor, said they were angry that he had not disclosed these meetings earlier.

Mr. Cameron is in the awkward position of counting two of the arrested parties — Mr. Coulson and Ms. Brooks — as personal friends. As leader of the opposition, he attended Ms. Brooks’ wedding in 2009 (Rupert Murdoch and Gordon Brown, then the prime minister, of the Labour Party, were also guests).

Mr. Cameron was friendly enough with Ms. Brooks to socialize with her twice in December, according to records released by Downing Street last Friday. Once was at a cozy family dinner at her country house over the Christmas holiday; James Murdoch was also present.

The meetings took place while Mr. Cameron’s government was considering, favorably, the News Corporation’s bid to take over the part of BskyB that it did not already own.

Oddly enough, both Sir Paul and Ms. Brooks were due to give testimony on Tuesday to different Parliamentary committees looking into phone hacking. Keith Vaz, the chairman of the home affairs committee, where Sir Paul was due to be questioned, said that there was no reason the session should not still proceed. On Monday, Mr. Vaz announced that Assistant Commissioner John Yates, who testified before the committee last week, would return on Tuesday "to clarify a number of points in his evidence.”

This article, "Cameron Calls In Parliament as Hacking Scandal Grows," originally appeared in The New York Times.

Jo Becker, Ravi Somaiya and Alan Cowell contributed reporting from London, and Jeremy W. Peters from New York.


Hide Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus