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Hacking crisis widens, for Murdoch and British leader

Document shows media company’s links to Cameron

By John F. Burns
New York Times / July 17, 2011

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LONDON - As Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper empire took a step to contain the damage of a deepening scandal yesterday, publishing full-page ads in every national newspaper in Britain under the words “We are sorry,’’ the government released information documenting its close ties to the company that continued as the scandal escalated.

The mood of atonement by Murdoch’s News Corp. was a U-turn from his previously defiant handling of the crisis. The banner headline in yesterday’s editions of the Times of London read “Day of Atonement,’’ and it was all the more striking for the fact that it ran in the 226-year-old newspaper that is the flagship of the print empire Murdoch has assembled in Britain.

At the end of a week that rocked the interwoven worlds of the press, politicians, and the police in Britain, and spread across the Atlantic with the opening of an FBI investigation into allegations of associated abuses in the United States, penitence was the buzzword far beyond the London headquarters of Murdoch’s British-based newspaper subsidiary, News International.

The crisis seemed far from over for Murdoch, as the scandal that began over illegal phone hacking by the now defunct News of the World, widened to include a second newspaper in his stable, The Sunday Times, officials said yesterday.

Nor was the crisis abating for Prime Minister David Cameron. As the presses rolled Friday night with the Murdoch bid for redemption in the “sorry’’ ad, and with front-page stories telling of his apology to the parents of a murdered girl whose cellphone voicemails were hacked, Cameron’s aides released a diary of his meetings with executives and editors of News International.

The diary shed light on what Cameron acknowledged last week was the “cozy and comfortable’’ world in which politicians, the press, and the police in Britain have functioned for decades, one he said had to yield to much greater public scrutiny.

The diary showed that since taking office in May 2010, Cameron has met 26 times with Murdoch executives, including Murdoch; his son James, the top official of News International; and Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of the British subsidiary and editor of News of the World, who resigned Friday.

Her resignation was quickly followed by that of Les Hinton, the News Corp. executive and former chief of News International who had been publisher of The Wall Street Journal, another Murdoch property, since 2007. All four executives are expected to testify before a parliamentary oversight committee Tuesday.

Most of the meetings were at the prime minister’s London headquarters at 10 Downing Street, or at Chequers, his official country residence northwest of London. His meetings with the Murdoch officials exceeded all those with other British media representatives put together. Brooks was the only person on the guest list for Chequers who had been invited there twice.

Another guest was Andy Coulson, the former News of the World editor who resigned as Cameron’s Downing Street media chief under the pressure of the phone-hacking scandal in January. That visit occurred in March, two months after he resigned.

The list did nothing to assuage the questions about Cameron’s judgment in maintaining close ties with executives of a media enterprise that has been under a faltering police investigation for years and has come under intense scrutiny in the past few months. The ties to Coulson, in particularly, have been assailed by the Labor opposition leader, Ed Miliband, but have also spread dismay among Cameron’s Conservatives.

Foreign minister William Hague defended those ties yesterday, telling the BBC that inviting Coulson to Chequers was “not surprising that in a democratic country there is some contact’’ between political and media leaders.

While the police investigation has largely centered on cellphone hacking by journalists at News of the World, it has now spread to the investigative unit of the Sunday Times, a person familiar with internal News Corp. discussions said. That person, as well as a person with knowledge of the scope of the inquiry, said the investigation would expand to include hacking into e-mail accounts and other online privacy invasions.

One target of the investigation is Jonathan Rees, a private detective employed by News of the World with ties to corrupt police officers and a criminal record. Tom Watson, a Labor minister who has been briefed on the inquiry, said the police had evidence that Rees was paid by News International and that he had claimed to have met with members of the Sunday Times investigation unit.

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