British police under scrutiny as scandal grows bigger
LONDON (AFP) ― British lawmakers were to grill police chiefs Tuesday amid reports that royalty and ex-prime minister Gordon Brown were targeted in a phone-hacking scandal that felled Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World.
Four past and present senior Scotland Yard officers were due to appear before a home affairs committee as the scandal spiraled and the government dealt a blow to Murdoch’s bid for total control of satellite broadcaster British Sky Broadcasting.
Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown (left) shakes hands with daughter of media magnate Rupert Murdoch, Elisabeth Murdoch (second from left), as chief executive of News International Rebekah Brooks (right) watches on March 8, 2008. (AP-Yonhap News)
Detectives told Brown on Monday that he may have been targeted by The Sunday Times and The Sun, stable-mates of Murdoch’s doomed News of the World tabloid, in the latest twist to a crisis shaking the media, politics and the police.
“The family has been shocked by the level of criminality and the unethical means by which personal details have been obtained. The matter is in police hands,” a spokesman for the former prime minister said.
Police told Brown that employees working for The Sun and Sunday Times had hacked his phone, accessed his personal bank account and uncovered his son’s medical records when he was finance minister.
The royal family, including Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, may have been phone-hacking targets by the News of the World, the Guardian newspaper said.
Britain’s biggest selling weekly newspaper was shut down by Murdoch at the weekend in a shock move amid allegations of widespread illegal hacking.
With the rot threatening to spread to other parts of Murdoch’s empire, News International ― his British newspaper wing ― issued a brief statement asking for information about the claims relating to Brown.
But the damage to Australian-born Murdoch’s News Corporation continued as Prime Minister David Cameron’s government announced that Murdoch’s bid to take over BSkyB would be referred to Britain’s competition commission.
Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt told parliament that he had taken the decision after News Corporation withdrew its earlier offer to spin off Sky News from the deal as a concession.
“The events of last week shocked the nation,” Hunt said, referring to a frantic period which began with claims that the News of the World hacked the phone of a young murder victim and ended with the paper’s demise.
He said the decision would take at least six months.
Scotland Yard, which is leading inquiries into hacking and allegations of corruption at the tabloid, joined the fray with an unusual statement Monday condemning some media reports as part of a “deliberate” attempt to undermine the probe.
It said they had agreed in meetings with News International and their lawyers to keep certain information confidential.
“We are extremely concerned and disappointed that the continuous release of selected information ― that is only known by a small number of people ― could have a significant impact on the corruption investigation,” Scotland Yard said.
The statement referred to reports by the BBC and other media that an internal News International inquiry found emails that included requests by a News of the World reporter for money to pay royal protection police for phone numbers belonging to the royal family.
Assistant commissioner John Yates was expected to concede Tuesday that he did not examine any documents before announcing in 2009 that the force had no need to reopen the hacking investigation it closed two years earlier, the Guardian reported.
The 80-year-old Murdoch is in London to take personal charge of dealing with the scandal that forced the closure of the tabloid.
Cameron urged the media baron to deal with the hacking crisis instead of focusing on his bid to acquire the remaining 61 percent of BSkyB, which the government had been set to decide on.
“If I was running that company right now, with all of the problems and the difficulties and the mess, frankly, that there is, I think they should be focused on clearing those up rather than on the next corporate move,” Cameron said.
Cameron is himself under pressure after police on Friday arrested Andy Coulson, a former News of the World editor who was his media chief until he quit in January over the phone hacking allegations and claims of corruption.
The News of the World had been dogged by allegations of voicemail hacking for years. A royal reporter and a private investigator were jailed in 2007, forcing Coulson’s resignation.