Murdochs face parliament grilling on phone hacking

AFP , Tuesday 19 Jul 2011

British PM David Cameron called the media empire scandal 'a big problem,' as Murdoch, his son and Rebekah Brooks stand before parliamentary committee after initially refusing to appear

Photographers and cameramen surround the vehicle carrying Rupert Murdoch along Whitehall in London, Tuesday, (AP).

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch, his son James and ex-aide Rebekah Brooks faced an extraordinary showdown with MPs Tuesday over a phone-hacking crisis that now threatens to engulf Britain's prime minister.

As David Cameron admitted the country had a "big problem" and cut short a trip to Africa, the trio prepared to testify to a parliamentary committee over the scandal which sunk the News of the World tabloid and forced out two police chiefs.

In a further tragic twist, British police were investigating the unexplained death of whistleblower Sean Hoare, a former reporter at the newspaper who first implicated Cameron's ex-spokesman Andy Coulson in the scandal.

"This is a big problem but we are a big country," Cameron said after meeting Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan in Lagos, adding: "We are going to sort them out."

Cameron, who is due to fly home to address an emergency session of parliament on Wednesday, added that his government would not lose its focus on the key challenges facing Britain, including restoring growth after the recession.

In London, Rupert Murdoch's car was mobbed by photographers as it arrived at parliament and then drove off again.

Dozens of people queued up to get into the hearing of parliament's Culture, Media and Sport committee to hear the two Murdochs and Brooks, until recently the three most powerful people in the British media.

Lawmakers also heard evidence from outgoing Scotland Yard chief Paul Stephenson, who quit on Sunday amid questions over the force's links with Neil Wallis, deputy editor at the News of the World when Coulson edited the paper.

Stephenson admitted that 10 members of the Metropolitan Police press office had worked at News International, the British newspaper operation of Murdoch's embattled global business, News Corporation.

But he denied taking a "swipe" at Cameron in his resignation statement and comparing the force's employment of Wallis to Coulson.

Both Coulson, who left Downing Street in January, and Wallis have since been arrested and bailed on suspicion of phone hacking.

With New York-based News Corp. also facing a probe in the United States and shares plummeting, the 80-year-old Murdoch reportedly engaged public relations consultants to train him for Tuesday's session.

James Murdoch, chief executive of News Corp's Europe and Asia operation, promises to be the focus of scrutiny over payments he is alleged to have approved to the victims of hacking.

The flame-haired Brooks, who quit as chief executive of News International on Friday, will also be taken to task for her remarks before the same committee in 2003 when she admitted police had been paid for stories.

Brooks, also a former editor of the News of the World, was arrested on Sunday on suspicion of hacking and bribing police.

The Murdochs initially refused to appear before the committee but relented after they were formally summoned.

Ed Miliband, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, called on them all to issue a full public apology.

"What members of the public will want to know is whether Rupert and James Murdoch and indeed Rebekah Brooks have some remorse for what happened, and are willing to apologise and say they have let down the British people," he said.

News International was meanwhile targeted overnight by the Lulz Security hacker group, which replaced The Sun newspaper's online version with a fake story saying Australian-born Rupert was dead.

Lawmakers were also due to hear from anti-terror chief John Yates, who resigned less than 24 hours after his boss Stephenson. Yates had refused to reopen an investigation into the paper in 2009.

The initial police investigation into the Sunday tabloid resulted in the jailing of the paper's former royal editor and a private investigator but the evidence then sat untouched for years.

When the probe was eventually reopened in January, detectives found thousands more alleged hacking victims, including Milly Dowler, a murdered 13-year-old schoolgirl.

Meawnwhile police said a post mortem was being carried out on Hoare, a former News of the World showbusiness reporter, who alleged in interviews with The New York Times newspaper and the BBC last year that Coulson knew about voicemail hacking.

Hoare was found dead early Monday at his home in Watford, north of London, Hertfordshire Police said in a statement. "The death is currently being treated as unexplained, but not thought to be suspicious," it said.

The Guardian newspaper said Hoare had long-term drink and drug problems.

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