Britain’s phone-hacking scandal stayed in overdrive Monday following the arrest of Rebekah Brooks, former editor of the News of the World (NotW) and the resignation of Britain’s top police official, Sir Paul Stephenson, who left amid allegations he employed expensive News Corporation operatives to advise Scotland Yard.
A scandal that began at a tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch has seeped into and around 10 Downing Street and now appears to be unsettling the London police department. London police commissioner John Yates, who was in charge of a 2006 investigation into illegal telephone intercepts by NotW, also resigned today.
Prime Minister David Cameron today said he is cutting short his visit to Africa and will extend parliamentary sessions to accommodate the crisis. Mr. Cameron's political future has been clouded by the scandal, since he employed since-arrested former NotW deputy editor Andy Coulson.
Just two weeks ago, on July 2, a glittering array of media and political figures were fêted in a sumptuous News Corp. bash held at Cotswald Mansion, the home of Rupert Murdoch's daughter Elisabeth. That now seems like another era. Outcry over the hacked phones of 3,870 ordinary Brits, including the erased messages of a murdered 13-year-old girl, Millie Dowler, has hit London’s power elite. The News of the World has been shuttered, and Mr. Murdoch’s planned $12 billion purchase of full control of satellite TV station BSkyB has been blocked. News Corp. has lost approximately $7 billion in value since June 1. Last Friday is being termed “Black Friday” for News Corp. here as both Brooks and a top US executive, Les Hinton, left the firm.
Moreover, the Murdoch empire in Britain, known and feared as kingmakers and opinion-shapers, faces unprecedented revulsion and opposition.
“The scandal is letting out a lot of anger that has been built up for years in the British public,” says Jasmine Birtles, who runs the Moneymagpie website in London. “Brooks has been arrested on the same day as the British public is hearing she told [Prime Minister] Cameron he had to hire Andy Coulson as chief press officer.”
In Britain, the revelations that Murdoch's tabloid routinely bribed police officers and illegally listened to private cellphone messages has overshadowed an ongoing debt crisis in Europe that has crippled Greece and raised questions about the ability of Italy and Spain to pay back debt. It has also diverted attention from Britain’s own difficult adjustment to spending cuts, including to medical programs and pension plans.
Brooks, a central figure in the unfolding scandal and a horseback riding partner of Mr. Cameron, endured growing British public opprobrium before she resigned July 15. Yesterday, her visit to a London police station to cooperate in an investigation turned into an arrest and 12 hours of detention and questioning before terms of her bail were agreed to.
Mr. Stephenson, meanwhile, left his post as the Metropolitan Police Commissioner after reports confirmed last week that he had employed Neil Wallis, a News Corp. operative deeply involved in the hacking scandal, to advise Scotland Yard at $1,700 a day until last year. Britain’s top cop had also apparently accepted hospitality gifts at a posh spa that also employed Wallis.
On Tuesday, Murdoch and his son James are scheduled to testify before a House of Commons committee. Brooks is also scheduled to appear to answer detailed questions. While numerous press sources say Brooks is now unlikely to testify following her arrest, the BBC’s Robert Peston Monday sent a tweet that Brooks will “definitely” show up to “give evidence,” citing her spokesman.
As the scandal has exploded, perhaps no single figure has been more derided than Brooks. The woman whose distinctive red curly locks and impassive demeanor are now well known started as a secretary at News Corp. and was catapulted up the Murdoch ladder to become a “fifth daughter” to the billionaire media mogul; she is known for entering Cameron meetings without knocking. Her tough style made her the first female editor of the Sun; former prime minister Gordon Brown said it was Brooks, as editor of News of the World, who called to tell him the paper was running an exclusive on his young son’s disability, which Brown had sought to keep out of the public eye.
Brooks, who lives a short distance from Mr. Cameron in Oxfordshire, was close to Coulson. In recent days, reports have indicated that she played a key role in advising Cameron on hiring Coulson as director of communications last year following the election of a Tory-led coalition to rule Britain.