British hacking inquiry opens as scandal spreads again

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A judge opened Britain's phone-hacking inquiry Thursday with a vow that he will order witnesses to testify, as new claims emerged in a scandal that has tarnished the media, police and politicians.

Lord Justice Brian Leveson, the judge appointed by Prime Minister David Cameron to lead the probe, said the inquiry would start by looking at media ethics and press regulation.

The first public hearings would be held in September, he announced.

But just hours after Leveson spoke, the mother of a murdered girl on whose behalf the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World tabloid had campaigned relentlessly said she may have been targeted by a private investigator working for the now-defunct paper.

Sara Payne, the mother of eight-year-old Sarah Payne who was killed by a paedophile in 2000, was "absolutely devastated" after police told her that her voicemail might have been hacked by the paper.

News of the World had provided her with a mobile phone for the past 11 years, former editor Rebekah Brooks said.

Brooks worked with Sara Payne to campaign for tougher child protection laws during her 2000-2003 editorship of News of the World.

Brooks earlier this month quit as head of News International, Murdoch's British newspaper publishing arm, and was arrested by Scotland Yard on suspicion of phone-hacking.

Brooks said in a statement that the latest allegations were "abhorrent" and "particularly upsetting" because Payne was a "dear friend".

The scandal erupted earlier this month after it emerged that 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.

It has since caused the resignations of two top British police officers, involved Cameron after he hired another former editor of the paper as his press chief, and threatened the stability of Murdoch's global media empire.

In a partial boost, board members at British satellite broadcaster BSkyB gave their "unanimous backing" to Murdoch's son James to stay on as chairman, a source close to the pay-TV giant told AFP.

Rupert Murdoch's US-based News Corporation was forced to drop its bid for the 61 percent of shares it does not own in BSkyB earlier this month because of the hacking scandal.

At the first hearing of the hacking inquiry on Thursday, Leveson said the first stage would focus on the "relationship between the press and the public, and the related issue of press regulation."

Sitting at a cramped table alongside the six other panel members at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London, the bespectacled judge said he was entitled to compel witnesses to give evidence on phone-hacking.

"I intend to exercise those powers as soon as possible," he said.

Evidence will be given under oath, an inquiry spokesman told AFP.

Leveson said the inquiry would turn to press relationships with the police and politicians later on. He added that it could be difficult to meet Cameron's 12-month deadline for an initial report.

He said his goal was to consider what lessons could be learned and what recommendations should be made for press regulation, governance and oversight.

But the judge urged editors, journalists and proprietors across Britain's media industry not 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".

The scandal has threatened to spread out to other papers, with former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan, now a top presenter with US television network CNN, issuing a fresh denial on Wednesday that he used any stories knowingly obtained by hacking.

In his opening remarks Leveson sought to quash claims about his own links to Murdoch's empire after it emerged that the judge previously had social connections with the tycoon's son-in-law, the public relations guru Matthew Freud.

The scandal has refused to go away since the jailing in 2007 of the News of the World's former royal editor Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator in whose notes Sara Payne's details were found.

Andy Coulson, the editor at the time, resigned as the paper claimed Goodman was a rogue reporter. Coulson went on to become Cameron's media chief.

Police eventually reopened the inquiry in January 2011 and discovered that up to 4,000 people may have had their phones hacked. Ten people have been arrested so far.

© 2011 AFP

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