Sky’s off limits to Rupert Murdoch, say UK lawmakers

Rupert Murdoch faced an onslaught from British lawmakers on Tuesday as the government backed calls for him to drop his bid for pay TV giant BSkyB and a committee summoned him to answer questions on phone hacking.

Former prime minister Gordon Brown also piled pressure on Murdoch’s media empire, accusing it of hiring “criminals” to obtain his private documents and suggesting it used illegal methods to break the news of his son’s illness.

Scotland Yard added to the 80-year-old tycoon’s woes, accusing his newspapers of blocking their investigations into hacking at the News of the World, the beleaguered tabloid that Murdoch axed on Sunday.

In a rare show of unity in Britain’s fractious Parliament against the one-time kingmaker of British politics, the coalition goverment looked set to back a motion being introduced by the opposition Labour party on Wednesday urging Murdoch to withdraw his bid for full control of satellite broadcaster BSkyB.

“We are intending to support it,” a spokesperson for Prime Minister David Cameron’s Downing Street office said.

The government referred the bid to competition authorities on Monday.

Rupert brought to bear
Murdoch flew to Britain on Sunday to take control of the crisis and on Tuesday he met with News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks, who was News of the World editor at the time of some of the hacking, and other key figures.

Lawmakers took advantage of his presence to call on him, his son, News Corp executive James Murdoch, and Brooks to appear to face questions about hacking and allegations that Murdoch papers paid police for information.

News International said it would “cooperate” with the request from the House of Commons culture, media and sport select committee to appear next week, but did not immediately confirm their attendance.

Murdoch is not the only one facing pressure from lawmakers.

Thinning blue line
Senior police officers were grilled by a committee on Tuesday about how an original probe into the News of the World in 2006, which resulted in the jailing of two people, failed to unearth a trove of further allegations.

The fresh claims, including that the tabloid hacked the voicemails of a murdered teenager and the relatives of dead soldiers, finally emerged last week and unleashed the public outrage that led to the demise of the paper.

Scotland Yard Assistant Commissioner John Yates, who decided not to reopen the investigation in 2009, apologised to the victims but blamed News International for failing to hand over key evidence.

“The evidence that we should have had in 2005-6 and in 2009 has only recently been supplied by News International,” he said, adding that the company had “clearly misled us”.

He revealed that his own phone had been hacked during 2005-06, but strongly denied any suggestion that he decided not to reopen the police probe because he feared his private details would emerge in the press.

Committee chair Keith Vaz said he had found Yates “unconvincing”.

A new police investigation was opened in January, and officers are now trawling through 11 000 documents seized from private detective Glen Mulcaire, who was jailed in 2007 as a result of the original investigation.

Peter Clarke, a former deputy assistant commissioner who oversaw the original probe, also accused News International of “deliberately trying to thwart a police investigation.”

Brown knows
In another major twist, Brown accused the Sunday Times, the News of the World‘s upmarket stablemate, of using con tricks to obtain bank details and legal documents relating to a flat he bought.

He also said he “couldn’t think” how the Sun, another Murdoch paper, had obtained information that his son had cystic fibrosis, adding that when the tabloid splashed the news on its front page in 2006 he was left “in tears”.

“I’m shocked, I’m genuinely shocked to find that this happened because of their links with criminals, known criminals who were undertaking this activity, hired by investigators who were working with the Sunday Times,” he told the BBC.

But News International later denied his claims following what it said was an internal inquiry.

It said the Sun story about his son came from a member of the public whose family had experienced cystic fibrosis and who “wanted to highlight the cause of those afflicted by the disease”.

The Sunday Times meanwhile “pursued the story (about the flat) in the public interest”, it said, adding that “no criminal was used”. — Sapa-AFP

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Alice Ritchie
Alice Ritchie
AFP journalist covering British politics. South Londoner.

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