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Arrest, resignation roil Britain

Chief quits hours after Brooks held

News International, Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper empire in Britain, has been engulfed in the hacking scandal. News International, Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper empire in Britain, has been engulfed in the hacking scandal. (Ben Stansall/ AFP/ Getty Images)
By Sarah Lyall and Don Van Natta Jr.
New York Times / July 18, 2011

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LONDON - Britain’s top police official resigned yesterday, the latest casualty of the phone hacking scandal engulfing British public life, hours after Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of Rupert Murdoch’s News International, was arrested on suspicion of illegally intercepting phone calls and bribing the police.

The official, Paul Stephenson, commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service, commonly known as the Met or Scotland Yard, said that he had decided to step down because “the ongoing speculation and accusations relating to the Met’s links with News International at a senior level’’ had made it difficult for him to do his job.

But he said he had done nothing wrong and that he would not “lose sleep over my personal integrity.’’ He also said that because he had not been involved in the original phone-hacking investigation, he had had no idea that Neil Wallis, a former News of the World deputy editor who had become a public-relations consultant for the police after leaving the paper, was himself suspected of phone hacking.

Wallis, 60, was arrested Thursday.

The commissioner’s resignation came as the London political establishment was still digesting the stunning news about the arrest of Brooks - who apparently was surprised herself. A consummate networker who has always been assiduously courted by politicians and whose friends include Prime Minister David Cameron, Brooks, 43, is the 10th and by far the most powerful person to be arrested in connection with the phone hacking scandal.

Her arrest is bound to be particularly wounding to Murdoch, who, asked early last week to identify his chief priority in the affair, pointed to Brooks and said, “This one.’’

Brooks has not yet been formally charged, but it is significant that she is being questioned in connection with two separate investigations. One is examining allegations of widespread phone hacking at News of the World, the now-defunct tabloid at the center of the scandal, where Brooks was editor from 2000 to 2003. The other is looking into more serious charges that News International editors paid police officers for information.

Brooks has always maintained that she was unaware of wrongdoing at News of the World, which was summarily closed by Murdoch a week ago in an unsuccessful damage-control exercise. But the tide rose against her, and she resigned Friday, saying in a written statement that her presence was “detracting attention’’ from the company.

Until Brooks arrived at a London police station by prearranged appointment yesterday, she believed she would merely be helping the police as a witness, her spokesman said.

“She was very surprised, I think, to then be arrested,’’ said the spokesman, David Wilson.

Brooks was arrested “under caution,’’ he said, meaning that she was read her rights and treated as a suspect. “She maintains her innocence, absolutely,’’ he said. She was released on bail after about 12 hours in police custody.

For months, Brooks had been willing to talk to the police but had been rebuffed, Wilson said.

No formal charges have yet been brought either against any of the others - mostly former editors and reporters at News of the World - arrested in the phone-hacking case. These include Andy Coulson, who resigned as the paper’s editor in 2007, was then hired by the Conservative Party, and most recently worked as the chief spokesman for Cameron’s government.

Stephenson, who took over the top police job in 2009, stepped down in large part because of a furor over his contacts with News International officials. The New York Times reported over the weekend that he met for meals 18 times with News International executives and editors during the phone hacking investigation, and that other top other police officials have had similar meetings.

These included meeting Wallis eight times while he was still working at News of the World.

In his statement, Stephenson explained that he had withheld information about his contacts with Wallis, even after Wallis became a phone-hacking suspect, because he “did not want to compromise the prime minister in any way by revealing or discussing a potential suspect who clearly had a close relationship with Mr. Coulson’’ - Cameron’s friend and former employee.

Both Stephenson and Brooks were due to give testimony tomorrow to different Parliamentary committees looking into phone hacking. Keith Vaz, the chairman of the home affairs committee, where Stephenson was due to be questioned, said that there was no reason the session should not still proceed.

But Brooks’s appearance, at the committee on culture, media and sport, is in doubt. Before her arrest, she had warned that because of the investigation, she might be limited in what she could say. Now, it is unclear whether she will attend.

Although they will still get to question her former bosses, Rupert and James Murdoch, committee members seem disappointed at the prospect of losing Brooks. Some even said that they wondered if the timing of the arrest was designed to ensure that she was unavailable to answer their questions.

“Being of a suspicious mind, I do find it odd that they should arrest her now by appointment,’’ said Chris Bryant, a Labor member of the committee, who suspects his phone was hacked by News of the World. He said that Brooks’s arrest brings the scandal closer to the top.

“The water is now lapping around the ankles of the Murdoch family,’’ he said.

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