British hacking scandal widens with Brown, royal claims

11th July 2011, Comments 0 comments

Britain's phone hacking scandal spiralled Monday amid reports that other Rupert Murdoch papers were involved, while the government referred the media mogul's bid for pay-TV BSkyB to a watchdog.

In a story taking new twists and turns by the hour and involving all levels of the establishment, former prime minister Gordon Brown was preparing to say he had been heavily targeted by the The Sunday Times and The Sun, both Murdoch papers, reports said.

The royal family were also allegedly targeted, with police protection officers receiving payments for royal phone numbers from the News of World tabloid, which Murdoch shut down at the weekend in a bid to limit the scandal.

Current Prime Minister David Cameron's government announced that Murdoch's bid to take over satellite broadcaster BSkyB would be referred to Britain's competition commission, saying it would report in six months.

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt told parliament that he had taken the decision after Murdoch's News Corporation withdrew its earlier offer to spin off Sky News from the deal as a concession.

The announcement came after reports that an internal inquiry at News International, Murdoch's British newspaper operation, found emails that included requests by a News of the World reporter for money to pay police in the royal protection branch, the BBC and other media said.

Scotland Yard, which is leading inquiries into phone hacking and allegations of corruption at the tabloid, said the reports were part of a "deliberate campaign to undermine the investigation".

They said they had agreed in meetings with the tabloid's publisher News International and their lawyers to keep certain information confidential.

"We are extremely concerned and disappointed that the continuous release of selected information -- that is only known by a small number of people -- could have a significant impact on the corruption investigation," they said.

Australian-born Murdoch is in London to take personal charge of dealing with the furore that forced the closure of the populist News of the World.

While Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg -- speaking after meeting the family of a murdered schoolgirl whose voicemail was hacked by the tabloid -- urged Murdoch to scrap his bid for BSkyB, Cameron did not go that far.

"If I was running that company right now, with all of the problems and the difficulties and the mess, frankly, that there is, I think they should be focused on clearing those up rather than on the next corporate move," Cameron said.

But Cameron himself has been tarnished by the scandal, after police on Friday arrested Andy Coulson, a former News of the World editor who was Cameron's media chief until he quit in January over the phone hacking allegations and claims of corruption.

"At no stage did anyone give me any information that showed that he knew about the phone hacking," Cameron said.

"If they had done, I wouldn't have employed him; if they had done subsequently, I would have fired him. I never had that information. I gave Andy Coulson a second chance; I employed him; I did it in good faith.

"If it turns out these assurances are untrue, I will be incredibly angry and incredibly let down."

The government had looked set to decide in the coming days on whether News Corporation should take full control of BSkyB by acquiring the 61 percent it does not already own, but has faced calls to delay the ruling.

Having closed News of the World, Britain's biggest selling weekly newspaper, News Corp. on Monday withdrew its offer to hive off the Sky News television channel as a concession to the government in its bid to take full control of BSkyB, the company said.

Within minutes, Hunt announced he was referring the bid to a competition watchdog "with immediate effect".

Hunt, upon whom the decision falls whether to wave through the deal, consulted media and fair trading watchdogs to see whether their advice to him to permit the takeover still stood following the hacking scandal.

The News of the World had been dogged by allegations of voicemail hacking for years. A royal reporter and a private investigator were jailed in 2007.

Claims that murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler and the families of dead soldiers were targeted saw the affair snowball.

The News of the World was closed down, publishing its final edition on Sunday after 168 years with the headline "Thank You and Goodbye".

BSkyB shares plunged 7.6 percent on Monday, slumping to 693 pence from 750 pence at the close on Friday. They later recovered slightly to 705 pence, a drop of six percent.

© 2011 AFP

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