British phone hacking inquiry opens
A British judge formally opened an inquiry Thursday into the phone-hacking scandal that has rocked the country, saying the first public hearings will be in September and will focus on media ethics.
Lord Justice Brian Leveson also sought to quash claims about his own links to Rupert Murdoch's media empire after it emerged that the judge previously had social connections with the tycoon's daughter and son-in-law.
Prime Minister David Cameron ordered the inquiry earlier this month into the swirling scandal that shut down the Murdoch-owned News of the World (NoW) tabloid and dragged in the police, politicians and the premier himself.
"In the first instance, the inquiry will focus primarily on what I am calling the relationship between the press and the public, and the related issue of press regulation," Leveson said in his opening statement.
Sitting alongside the six other panel members, the bespectacled judge said he would "exercise (his) powers" to compel witnesses to give evidence on phone-hacking.
Evidence will be given under oath, an inquiry spokesman told AFP.
Leveson urged editors, journalists and proprietors to flag up "inappropriate practices."
"It may be tempting for a number of people to close ranks and suggest that the problem is or was local to a group of journalists then operating at the News of the World but I would encourage all to take a wider view of the public good and help me grapple with the width and depth of the problem," he said.
The lord justice of appeal said the inquiry would also hold seminars in October focusing on journalism and later turn to press relationships with the police and politicians.
The scandal erupted earlier this month after it emerged that the News of the World, which has since been shut down, had hacked into the voicemails of Milly Dowler, a missing 13-year-old girl who was later found murdered.
Murdoch's influence over Britain's political system through his stable of newspapers and holdings in pay-TV giant BSkyB has been at the heart of the crisis.
In a compact fourth-floor room in the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in central London, overlooking Westminster Abbey, Leveson and his panel sat round a cramped horseshoe-shaped table as the judge made his opening remarks.
The panel includes a police chief, a former newspaper chairman, former newspaper and television political editors, a former media watchdog chief and a civil liberties pressure group leader.
They set out by declaring their own links to the press, politicians and the police.
Leveson admitted in a declaration to the inquiry on Monday that he had met public relations guru Matthew Freud, the husband of Murdoch's daughter Elisabeth, "by chance" at a dinner in February 2010.
He then attended two "large evening events" at Freud's London home in July 2010 and January 2011 in his capacity as chairman of Britain's Sentencing Council, which deals with sentencing guidelines for criminals.
"Had I the slightest doubt about my own position, I would not have accepted the appointment and I also make it clear that I am satisfied that what the panellists have said creates no conflict of interest for them or for me," he said.
The scandal refused to go away following the jailing in 2007 of the News of the World's former royal editor Clive Goodman and a private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, for hacking the phones of British royals.
Then-editor Andy Coulson resigned but the paper claimed Goodman was a rogue reporter. Coulson went on to become Cameron's communications chief.
Police eventually reopened the inquiry in January 2011 and discovered that up to 4,000 people may have had their phones hacked.
Public outrage erupted after the hacking of Dowler's phone emerged on July 4 and Murdoch's News Corp. was forced to shut the News of the World on July 7.
That failed to stem the scandal and Murdoch had to back out of a bid for control of BSkyB, before losing two of his top lieutenants, Rebekah Brooks, head of his British newspaper arm, and Dow Jones chief Les Hinton.
The police were next to be hit. Scotland Yard chief Paul Stephenson and the force's anti-terror boss John Yates resigned when it emerged the Metropolitan Police had hired ex-NoW deputy editor Neil Wallis as a media consultant.
Police have arrested a total of 10 people including Brooks, Coulson and Wallis.
The fallout continues for the Murdochs with James on Thursday facing the board of BSkyB in his capacity as chairman of the broadcaster.
© 2011 AFP