Phone-hacking inquiry begins hearings in London

13th November 2011, Comments 0 comments

An inquiry into the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World tabloid holds its first hearings on Monday, beginning what is likely to be an uncomfortably close examination of the British press.

Prime Minister David Cameron ordered the inquiry, led by senior judge Brian Leveson, in July after the Rupert Murdoch-owned paper was dramatically closed following revelations that it hacked the phone of a murdered teenage girl.

Leveson is tasked to look at the culture, practices and ethics of the press, including how a system of self-regulation failed to identify rogue practices at the News of the World, and deliver his recommendations within 12 months.

He will examine the relationships the press has with the police and with politicians after the scandal laid bare the close ties between them, which some blame for allowing hacking to continue unchecked for so long.

Leveson will also look at the wrongdoing at the News of the World and its parent company, News International, although this part of the inquiry cannot start until the police finish their investigations -- which can take years.

Scotland Yard is running two probes, one into phone hacking and the other into illegal payments made by journalists to police officers. It has made a string of arrests, although no one has yet been charged.

Those held include former News of the World editors Rebekah Brooks -- later News International's chief executive -- and Andy Coulson, who served as Cameron's media chief until January this year.

Police and prosecutors have urged Leveson not to publish any documents or take evidence from suspects that might hinder their investigations, to which he has replied that he would "remain mindful" of their concerns.

Monday's formal hearings begin at 1030 GMT with statements from lawyers for the inquiry and for hacking victims, including actress Sienna Miller and the family of Milly Dowler, whose phone was hacked when she went missing in 2002.

The revelation that 13-year-old Dowler had been targeted by the News of the World blew open a scandal that had been bubbling under the surface for years, sparking public and political outrage and a public apology from Murdoch.

Leveson will have the power to summon witnesses to give evidence, but senior newspaper figures have already given their views ahead of the formal hearings.

Paul Dacre, the editor of the mass-selling Daily Mail, said last month he detected "the rank smells of hypocrisy and revenge" among politicians who had demanded the probe and changes to press regulation, after having "spent years indulging in sickening genuflection to the Murdoch press".

He argued that self-regulation was the only way to police a free press, although he called for a new ombudsman with the power to investigate potential press industry scandals and if necessary impose fines.

Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of the left-wing Guardian which helped break the hacking scandal, backed Dacre's proposals in a speech last week but welcomed the inquiry as a chance "to put the behaviour of a relatively small number of journalists into a wider context of decent editorial practices".

Meanwhile Kelvin MacKenzie, a former editor of Murdoch tabloid The Sun, told a seminar last month that Cameron had only ordered the inquiry "to escape his own personal lack of judgment" in hiring Coulson -- and insisted there was "nothing wrong with the press".

Coulson was editor of the News of the World when a royal reporter and a private detective were jailed for hacking in 2007. He resigned but denied any knowledge of what the paper had then insisted was an isolated incident.

Over the past four years, however, it has become clear that thousands of people were targeted by the tabloid, while in the last week it has also emerged that the News of the World spied on lawyers who acted for victims.

© 2011 AFP

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