British PM's ex-aide arrested over tabloid scandal

8th July 2011, Comments 0 comments

Police arrested David Cameron's ex-media chief and a former royal reporter over Britain's tabloid phone hacking row Friday as the prime minister promised urgent inquiries into the spiralling scandal.

Cameron looked rattled during the toughest press conference of his year in power, but he defended his decision to hire Andy Coulson, the former editor of Rupert Murdoch's News of the World tabloid, which is to shut this weekend.

He admitted the scandal went to the heart of the British establishment, saying: "The truth is, we have all been in this together -- the press, politicians and leaders of all parties, and yes, that includes me."

Cameron said he gave Coulson a "second chance" after he quit the News of the World in 2007 when two people were jailed over voicemail hacking. Coulson resigned as his communications chief in January, saying continuing claims were a distraction.

"The decision to hire him was mine and mine alone, and I take full responsibility for it," Cameron said, adding however that Coulson "became a friend and is a friend".

Murdoch surprised observers on Thursday when he killed off the 168-year-old News of the World, Britain's biggest-selling Sunday paper, amid claims that it hacked the voicemails of a murdered girl and the families of dead soldiers.

Cameron announced that he would set up a public inquiry led by a judge into the furore around the paper, as well as a second inquiry into the way in which the British press is regulated.

"These are the questions that need answering: Why did the first police investigation fail so abysmally? What exactly was going on at the News of the World? And what was going on at other newspapers?" he said.

As he was speaking, London's Metropolitan Police arrested Coulson by appointment at a south London police station "in connection with allegations of corruption and phone hacking".

The corruption allegations refer to alleged improper payments to police officers by the paper when Coulson edited the News of the World from 2003 to 2007.

After nine hours of questioning, Coulson was released on bail until October. As he left the police station, the 43-year-old told reporters: "There is an awful lot I would like to say, but I can't at this time."

Police also on Friday re-arrested Clive Goodman, the News of the World's former royal editor, one of the two men jailed in 2007 for hacking the voicemails of Princes William and Harry.

Goodman, 53, was apprehended at his house in Surrey, south of London, on corruption charges. He was later bailed, also until October.

Police raided the offices of another British weekly tabloid, the Daily Star Sunday, where Goodman had worked as a freelance reporter over the past year.

The paper said officers had requested computer material linked to Goodman "to cross-check it with his activities in his News of the World role", adding that there was no suggestion he had acted improperly at the Daily Star Sunday.

The shock closure of the News of the World was seen as Murdoch's attempt to quell the scandal and save the bid by his News Corp. for control of the satellite broadcaster BSkyB, on which the British government is due to decide.

Shares in BSkyB plunged nearly eight percent on Friday. They have dropped nearly 12 percent this week, wiping £1.7 billion from its market value, now £13.1 billion ($21 billion, 14.7 billion euros).

It was also seen as a way of protecting Rebekah Brooks, the embattled head of Murdoch's British newspaper wing, News International. She was editor of the News of the World from 2000 to 2003, the period from which some of the allegations date.

Cameron said of reports she had offered her resignation: "In this situation, I would have taken it."

Britain's Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg also said senior executives should go.

"Someone higher up the chain has to take responsibility," Clegg, the leader of the centrist Liberal Democrat wing of Cameron's Conservative-led coalition, told reporters in Paris.

Brooks told the 200 sacked staff at the News of the World office on Friday that she felt "betrayed" and that she would try to find them jobs across the company, Sky News reported.

The last edition of the unashamedly sensationalist tabloid will be on Sunday, ending a long history of publishing sex scandals but also hard-hitting investigations including into recent Pakistani cricket match-fixing claims.

Murdoch will reportedly replace it with a Sunday edition of The Sun, his daily tabloid, which is Britain's biggest selling newspaper.

© 2011 AFP

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