British PM Former Aide Arrested in Tabloid Hacking Scandal

Friday, 08 Jul 2011 06:03 PM

By Martin Gould

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A former top aide to British Prime Minister David Cameron has been arrested for his part in a phone hacking scandal by British tabloid News of the World, just as Cameron annouced two inquiries into the newspaper's activities.

Andy Coulson was arrested at a south London police station by officers involved in Operation Weeting, the Metropolitan Police's investgation into allegations of phone hacking. He faces allegations that he was aware of phone hacking by News of the World and personally authorized it while he was editor.

Later in the day, authorities announced that former News of the World royal editor, previously jailed in 2007, was arrested over alleged payments to police as part of the hacking scandal. Clive Goodman was jailed for four months in January 2007 after royal staff members complained about voicemail messages having been intercepted relating to Prince William's knee injury.

But the arrest of Coulson was the biggest blow to Cameron who appointed Coulson Downing Street director of communications after becoming prime minister last year. Coulson had resigned in January over the scandal, and Cameron has been widely criticized for the hire.

"I decided to give him a second chance – and no one has ever raised serious concerns about how he did his job for me. But the second chance didn’t work out and he had to resign all over again," Cameron said at a press conference this morning."The decision to hire him was mine – and mine alone – and I take full responsibility for it."

At the same press conference, Cameron confessed that British politicians and the press had become too cozy and promised to hold two full investigations into activities at the News of the World tabloid and into future media regulation.

Cameron said press self-regulation had failed and a new body, independent of the media and the government, was needed to properly enforce standards.

"The truth is, we've all been in this together," Cameron said at a news conference a day after the announcement that the 168-year-old News of the World was closing down because of a phone hacking scandal.

"Party leaders were so keen to win the support of newspapers that we turned a blind eye to the need to sort this issue. The people in power knew things weren't right but they didn't do enough quickly enough," Cameron said.

The muckraking tabloid is closing down amid an expanding police investigation of phone hacking into missing girls and grieving families as well as celebrities, and the alleged press bribery of police officers for information. It comes just as media baron Rupert Murdoch is seeking U.K. government clearance for a euro12 billion ($19 million) bid for full control of British Sky Broadcasting, a prize far more valuable than his British stable of newspapers.

Cameron said his friend Rebekah Brooks, a former editor of the tabloid, should have resigned as chief executive of News International, the British unit of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.. He also said there were questions to be answered by James Murdoch, the heir-apparent to his father's media empire.

"I want everyone to be clear: Everything that has happened is going to be investigated," Cameron said.

He said a judge will be appointed to lead a thorough investigation of what went wrong at the News of the World, including alleged bribery of police officers, and a second inquiry to find a new way of regulating the press.

Two employees of the tabloid were sent to prison in 2007 after being convicted of hacking into royal telephones, but the police investigation of the activity at the time has been slammed as incomplete or compromised by new bribery allegations.

Cameron also suggested that a decision on Murdoch's BSkyB takeover is likely to be delayed.

"Given the events of recent days, this will take some time," Cameron said.

Cameron said Coulson remained a friend.

The prime minister referred to reports that Brooks had offered her resignation. "In this situation I would have taken it," Cameron said.

A reporter asked whether James Murdoch was a fit and proper person to run a company, following his admission on Thursday that regretted authorizing out-of-court payments to some hacking victims.

Murdoch's statement "raises lots of questions that need to be answered," Cameron said.

Coulson and Brooks are both former editors of the tabloid News of the World, which Murdoch’s son James announced will shut down after Sunday’s edition.

Even pro-Cameron sections of the British press have turned on the Prime Minister.

"The series of disgusting revelations concerning his friends and associates from Rupert Murdoch's News International has permanently and irrevocably damaged his reputation," wrote Peter Oborne, chief political commentator of the Daily Telegraph.

“Until now it has been easy to argue that Cameron was properly grounded with a decent set of values. Unfortunately, it is impossible to make that assertion any longer. He has made not one, but a long succession of chronic personal misjudgments,” wrote Oborne.

“He should never have employed Andy Coulson, the News of the World editor, as his director of communications. He should never have cultivated Rupert Murdoch. And – the worst mistake of all – he should never have allowed himself to become a close friend of Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of the media giant News International, whose departure from that company in shame and disgrace can only be a matter of time.”

Brooks was News of the World editor in 2002 when, it has now been revealed, Glenn Mulcaire, a private detective working for the paper hacked the cellphone of missing 13-year-old Milly Dowler and erased some messages. Dowler was later found murdered.

Brooks was on vacation at the time of the hacking and claimed she knew nothing about Mulcaire’s action. She quit as editor the following year and was replaced by Coulson.

Mulcaire and the paper’s royal correspondent, Clive Goodman, were both jailed in 2007 and police now say that the News of the World may have hacked the phones of up to 4,000 people, including two other missing teens, victims of the 2005 terrorist bombings in London and even widows of servicemen killed in Afghanistan and Iraq in the years that Brooks and Coulson headed the paper.

Those allegations have led to widespread revulsion in Britain. The News of the World faced an advertising blackout as companies rushed to distance themselves from the paper.

But the Prime Minister is taking action to distance himself from Murdoch’s company. He is due to meet Labor leader Ed Milliband next week to agree to the terms of reference for two inquiries into the hacking scandal.

Murdoch will likely continue to influence British politics. He was traditionally a supporter of Conservative leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and her successor John Major. But he turned against the party and supported Labor’s Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown, before he returned to the fold and threw his weight behind Cameron at last year’s election.

Andrew Russell, senior politics lecturer at Manchester University told Reuters news agency, "In the short-term, politicians of all stripes who have been very keen to have Murdoch-owned media on board might want to put some distance between themselves and his empire."

In the long term, however, analysts say that Murdoch's media empire is too large and too powerful for ambitious politicians to ignore, and most media commentators expect a replacement for the News of the World to emerge soon.

Ivor Gaber, professor of political journalism at London’s City University said, "Murdoch is a difficult man to resist when he controls so much of the media. Clearly there will be more wariness, but I wouldn't write a story saying this is the end of Murdoch's political influence, yet."

But it is the end of the News of the World, “The Paper that Died of Shame” as the Daily Mail called it.

Other journalists and executives at News Corp. are expected to be implicated as police inquiries grow. The Guardian newspaper said a second unidentified journalist would be arrested along with Coulson on Friday.

The News of the World is an institution in Britain. It sells more than 26 millioncopies every week and makes more than $200 million in advertising and circulation revenue a year.

Its closure after 168 years came as a shock to the nation. Many believe that the transgressions were committed by former staff but it is the current employees who are having to bear the brunt.

"People are just standing round in the office looking dazed. They just can't believe what's happened. All I am concerned about is that 200 professional people who have done nothing wrong have lost their jobs because of what's happened five or six years ago," the paper’s political editor David Wooding told The Guardian.

Current editor Colin Myler called Thursday “the saddest day of my career,” and Michelle Stanistreet, the general secretary of Britain’s National Union of Journalists added, “"This is an act of damage limitation to salvage Murdoch's reputation and that of News International, both of which are now tarnished beyond repair. Closing the title and sacking over 200 staff … is an act of utter cynical opportunism."

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