x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Cameron flies back to UK as phone hacking scandal claims new police scalp

MPs will hold an emergency debate tomorrow on the News of the World mobile phone hacking affair and the resignations it has brought over the past week, including reviewing the testimony Rupert Murdoch will give this afternoon to a parliamentary committee.

Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson leaving New Scotland Yard on Sunday. London's police chief has quit over his links to a former News of the World editor caught up in the phone hacking scandal. Sang Tan / AP Photo
Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson leaving New Scotland Yard on Sunday. London's police chief has quit over his links to a former News of the World editor caught up in the phone hacking scandal. Sang Tan / AP Photo

LONDON // The British prime minister, David Cameron, postponed parliament's summer recess yesterday following resignations by two of Britain's most senior police officers over the phone-hacking scandal.

Instead of embarking on their annual summer break today, MPs will hold an emergency debate on the situation tomorrow, including reviewing the testimony Rupert Murdoch will give this afternoon to a parliamentary committee.

Mr Cameron will return to London from Nigeria, where he is heading a trade mission, tomorrow night rather than the following morning so he can prepare for a statement to parliament on July 20, his spokesman, Steve Field, told reporters in Johannesburg yesterday.

One of the first voices to blow the whistle on the phone hacking, the former News of the World journalist Sean Hoare, was found dead Monday in Watford, about 30 kilometers northwest of London. Police said the death was being treated as unexplained but was not considered suspicious, according to the Press Association newsagencu in Britain.

The latest developments in a scandal that has gone toxic since it emerged two weeks ago that News of the World journalists had hacked the phone of a teenage girl who was murdered, followed the resignation on Sunday night of Paul Stephenson, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and the country's most senior policeman.

Yesterday, another top Scotland Yard officer, Assistant Commissioner John Yates, who heads the UK's anti-terrorism squad, announced that he, too, had quit.

Mr Yates had been under pressure to resign because he failed to recommend that Mr Stephenson reopen the investigation after reviewing the phone-hacking evidence in 2009. It later emerged that there was evidence the phone details of nearly 4,000 people had been obtained by the News of the World.

Although Mr Stephenson insisted he was leaving his post with his "integrity completely intact", he had come under fire for hiring Neil Wallis, a former deputy editor at the now-closed Sunday tabloid, as a speech writer and PR consultant.

Additionally, it emerged on Sunday that Mr Stephenson had received free accommodation at a luxury spa hotel, worth up to £12,000 (Dh71,000), as he recovered from an operation early this year. Mr Wallis was also acting as a public-relations consultant for the hotel at the time.

Last week, Mr Wallis was arrested in the police inquiry. Andy Coulson, who was his boss at the News of the World, had been arrested the week before.

One of the claims being made is that Mr Yates inappropriately helped get a job for the daughter of Mr Wallis, one of 10 people arrested in the scandal.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission said it was looking into the claims.

Mr Yates insisted he had done nothing wrong. "I have acted with complete integrity," he said. "My conscience is clear."

Mr Cameron appointed Mr Coulson as his communications director after he had resigned the editorship in 2007 because the newspaper's royal reporter had been jailed for hacking the voicemails of Buckingham Palace staff. Mr Coulson resigned his Downing Street post in January following new revelations in the scandal.

Mr Stephenson's announcement to step down came within hours of the arrest of Rebekah Brooks, who resigned last week as chief executive of News International, the parent company of the Murdoch newspapers in Britain.

Mr Stephenson will testify, along with Mr Yates, to the Commons home affairs committee today shortly before Mr Murdoch and Ms Brooks appear before the culture and media committee.

In his resignation statement, Mr Stephenson drew a comparison between his hiring of Mr Wallis and Mr Cameron's hiring of Mr Coulson.

"Unlike Mr Coulson," he said, "Mr Wallis had not resigned from the News of the World or, to the best of my knowledge, been in any way associated with the original phone-hacking investigation."

During a press conference in South Africa yesterday, the prime minister insisted that there was a difference between the hirings. "I don't believe the two situations are the same in any shape or form," he said.

"In terms of Andy Coulson, no one has argued that the work he did in government in any way was inappropriate or bad. He worked well in government and then left government.

"There is a contrast with the situation at the Metropolitan Police where, clearly, the issues have been around whether or not the investigation is being pursued properly."

The seemingly unending revelations of the phone hacking and payments to police officers have dented Mr Murdoch's worldwide media empire with about US$10 billion being wiped off the value of his US-based parent company, News Corp.

Since the start of July, the company's stock has lost almost a fifth of its value with the share price of its common stock in New York falling from $18.50 to $16.09.

More pressure was put on the company yesterday by Ed Miliband, the Labour Party leader, who has emerged as the political pacesetter over the scandal. He called for a change in media ownership laws in a speech in London. Mr Miliband said that the power wielded by the Murdoch empire in Britain was "not healthy" and said the Labour Party would submit proposals for a change to ownership rules.

"Down the ages, it is large concentrations of power that led to abuses of power and neglect of responsibility," Mr Miliband said. "News Corporation owned nearly 40 per cent of the newspaper market. It owns 80 per cent of the pay TV market through the Sky platform, and Sky News. I do not think that is healthy for our country."

Meanwhile, the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) said yesterday that it was giving "full consideration" to a request by Tom Watson, a Labour MP sitting on the culture and media committee, that it investigate payments allegedly made by News International to cover up the hacking scandal.

It also emerged yesterday that the US Department of Justice had been consulting the SFO over allegations that the News of the World paid police for information, which possibly breaches America's Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

Mr Murdoch and his son James, the head of News Corp's European interests, will have the chance to answer their critics before the committee today in what chairman John Whittingdale has said will be a "calm, forensic" session.

A spokesman for Ms Brooks said yesterday that she would also attend the hearings although it was unclear what questions she would answer because of the criminal proceedings against her.

dsapsted@thenational.ae

With addtional reporting by Bloomberg News