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Phone hacking affair shines light on cosy cliques of Britain's elites

News of the World scandal has highlighted close ties between media and politics, where the 'Chipping Norton set' includes the Prime Minister and Rupert Murdoch's daughter.

LONDON // The scandals swirling around the ties between the British press, politicians and police after the revelations about the News of the World have left the country examining its own form of wasta, or connections.

Allegations of phone hacking and criminal practices by newspapers within Rupert Murdoch's News Corp media empire have thrown attention on the social ties between the political and media classes cemented at parties in the English countryside and at health spas. Class division remains strong in Britain but successful commoners are now allowed in the clique.

The Conservative-led government of David Cameron, who attended Eton, and a majority of his ministers are millionaires but they work alongside others who prospered without the advantages that come with being born wealthy and socially connected.

The guest list of the April royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton illustrated an upper class embrace of popular commoners such as rock and sports stars.

Rupert Murdoch is an example of a commoner taken into the elite fold. He was born in Australia and is a US-naturalised citizen. He has been courted by the establishment because of newspaper and television power.

He faces a grilling in the British parliament today by politicians who until only weeks ago would have been keen to befriend the 80-year-old media mogul.

Some commentators have spoken, perhaps with hyperbole, of a "British Spring" in which the people shake off the hold on power by a group of politicians, policemen and journalists who regularly enjoyed each other's company at social gatherings.

Although there is widespread anger at the tactics used by tabloid journalists, the public still has an appetite for gossip. Now it is the social lives of the key players in the phone-hacking scandal that are being examined.

British newspapers talk about the "Chipping Norton Set", referring to a town some 100 kilometres west of London and close to the homes of Mr Cameron and Rebekah Brooks, who was forced to quit on Friday as chief executive of News International, News Corp's British newspaper arm.

Elizabeth Murdoch, the daughter of Mr Murdoch whose film company was recently bought by News Corp, and Matthew Freud, her husband and a press relations executive, held a party at their 22-bedroom home in Chipping Norton this month, just before the phone-hacking furore exploded.

"The party guest list paints a telling picture of the powerful web of influence that the couple had spun before the hacking crisis erupted," said the Mail on Sunday newspaper. "It reads like a roll call of the modern establishment - with the Murdochs and other News International executives at the hub."

Along with Ms Brooks were Michael Gove and Ed Vaizey, government ministers, and David Miliband, a former Labour minister and brother of Ed, the Labour leader who is at the front of the political stampede against Mr Murdoch.

Other journalists at the party included Robert Peston, the BBC's business editor, who used to work at the Financial Times with Will Lewis, the group general manager of News International.

Also under scrutiny is the guest list of Champneys, an exclusive health spa. Paul Stephenson, who resigned as Britain's top policeman on Sunday, enjoyed a free five-week stay there. Public relations for the spa and for Mr Stephenson were conducted by Neil Wallis, a former News of the World executive arrested last week in connection with phone hacking.

Another regular guest at Champneys was Ms Brooks, whose husband Charlie, also an Old Etonian, ran an alternative medicine centre there.

The avalanche of revelations has led to some calls for a formalisation of the division of power in Britain in the form of a written constitution. The country, along with Israel and New Zealand, does not have one.

sdevi@the national.ae