British hacking inquiry opens with warning to witnesses

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A British judge on Thursday opened an inquiry into the phone-hacking scandal that has rocked the country, warning he would use his powers to compel witnesses to give evidence "as soon as possible."

Lord Justice Brian Leveson, the judge appointed by Prime Minister David Cameron to lead the inquiry, said it would start by looking at media ethics and press regulation, with the first public hearings in September.

Cameron ordered the full public inquiry earlier this month into the swirling crisis that shut down the Rupert 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 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 said. 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.

The inquiry would be careful not to conflict with an ongoing police investigation into hacking, Leveson said. Ten people have already been arrested, including the prime minister's ex-media chief Andy Coulson, a former NoW editor.

But the judge urged editors, journalists and proprietors across Britain's media industry to flag up "inappropriate practices", signalling that the probe will range further than the News of the World.

"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," he said.

"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."

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

It 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.

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 daughter and son-in-law.

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 a professional capacity, he said.

"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.

Coulson, the editor at the time, resigned but the paper claimed Goodman was a rogue reporter.

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 became public on July 4 and Murdoch's News Corp. was forced to shut the News of the World on July 7.

Murdoch then had to drop a bid for control of pay-TV giant BSkyB, before losing two of his top lieutenants, Rebekah Brooks, head of his British newspaper arm, and Dow Jones chief Les Hinton.

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.

The fallout continues for the Murdochs with Rupert's son James on Thursday facing the board of BSkyB in his capacity as chairman of the broadcaster.

© 2011 AFP

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