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Legislators to call Murdoch to stand in hacking case

Vote set today on his bid for broadcaster

John Yates, once a Scotland Yard rising star, was rebuked at a parliamentary hearing yesterday for his 2009 review of a hacking investigation. John Yates, once a Scotland Yard rising star, was rebuked at a parliamentary hearing yesterday for his 2009 review of a hacking investigation. (Parbul TV via Reuters TV)
By Alan Cowell and Jo Becker
New York Times / July 13, 2011

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LONDON - Rupert Murdoch’s once-commanding influence in British politics seemed to dwindle to a new low yesterday, when all three major parties in Parliament joined in support of a sharp rebuke to his media empire and a parliamentary committee said it would call him, along with two other top executives, to testify publicly next week about the growing scandal enveloping his media empire.

Murdoch has been struggling to complete a huge, controversial takeover deal that still needs regulatory approval: the $12 billion acquisition of the shares in British Sky Broadcasting that it does not already own. In an effort to save that deal from the scandal’s fallout, Murdoch has shut down the tabloid at the heart of the scandal, News of the World. But the accusations have spread to other papers in his News International group and have taken in an ever wider and more outrage-provoking list of victims.

The House of Commons is to vote today on a motion declaring that “it is in the public interest for Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation to withdraw their bid for BSkyB,’’ a motion pushed by the opposition Labour Party that Conservatives decided yesterday to support. At least 600 of the 650 members of the house are expected to vote yes.

Though it would have little direct effect, the motion represents a powerful political headwind blowing against the deal, and against Murdoch.

A Parliamentary committee yesterday said it would call Murdoch, his son, James, and Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of News International, to testify next week about the accusations of phone-hacking and corruption at the News International papers, in what is likely to be one of the most sensational parliamentary hearings in years.

New and alarming charges came yesterday from Gordon Brown, former prime minister, who said that one of the most prestigious newspapers in the group, the Sunday Times, employed “known criminals’’ to gather personal information on Brown’s bank account, legal files, and tax affairs.

If Rupert Murdoch seemed under greater pressure than ever, a separate Parliamentary committee investigating years of indecisive police probes into News of the World’s rampant phone-hacking operations spent hours yesterday grilling police officers who led the inquiries.

Some of the most humbling moments for the police came as members of the home affairs committee demanded to know why John Yates, once regarded as Scotland Yard’s fastest-rising star, and still the head of the police’s counterterrorism force, spent only one day in a formal review of an earlier police investigation. That investigation had wrapped up after netting only two miscreants at the paper and securing brief jail terms for them; Yates concluded in 2009 that there was nothing more to probe. At one point, committee member Steve McCabe leaned into his microphone and said, “You just don’t seem like the dogged, determined sleuth that we would expect.’’

That was followed by the committee chairman, Keith Vaz, rebuking Andy Hayman, the officer, now retired, who oversaw the original investigation from 2005 to 2007: “All this sounds more like Clouseau than Columbo.’’

When Hayman went on to acknowledge that he had private dinners with journalists from News of the World at a time when the paper was under a criminal investigation that he oversaw, and defended that by saying that to “have turned it down would have been potentially more suspicious than to have it,’’ peals of laughter erupted in the hearing room. When Hayman, startled, protested - “I don’t know why you’re laughing’’ - another committee member retorted, “Because it’s so incredible.’’

The hearing’s most startling revelation came with the disclosure of the sheer scope of the new police investigation, covering many more potential phone-hacking victims than the 4,000 that police investigators have previously said they identified by going through the 11,000 pages of notes taken from the private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, who was one of the men jailed in the affair in 2007. Sue Akers, the top Scotland Yard officer assigned to take over the inquiry earlier this year, said that her 45-officer team was working through a list of 3,870 names, as well as 5,000 landline telephone numbers and 4,000 cellphone numbers that had been culled from Mulcaire’s notes. So far, she said, only 170 people had been formally notified that their phones may have been hacked.

The hearing could be a make-or-break moment for Murdoch and Brooks. The panel they will face - the select Committee on Culture, Media, and Sports - has been asked by the government media regulator Ofcom to make a judgment on whether Murdoch and his executives are “fit and proper’’ persons to run British Sky Broadcasting, Britain’s most lucrative satellite television network. The chairman of the committee, John Whittingdale, told the BBC that the committee’s probe of the malpractice at News of the World and other Murdoch newspapers would want to know “how far up the chain this went,’’ and he cast the hearing as a turning point. “They’re going to take on their critics and account for themselves in Parliament,’’ he said.

Brown’s accusations against the Sunday Times, concerning incidents when he was in office, signaled that the scandal would not be confined to the tabloid papers in the group.

“I’m shocked, I’m genuinely shocked, to find that this happened because of their links with criminals, known criminals, who were undertaking this activity, hired by investigators working with the Sunday Times,’’ Brown said.

The most damaging aspect of the affair involved Brown’s son, Fraser, now 5 years old, who has cystic fibrosis. A person close to Brown said on Monday that he believed that The Sun gained access to Fraser’s medical records for an article.

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