London’s police chief during the first probe of News Corp. (NWSA)’s phone-hacking scandal said he doesn’t recall discussing the loan of a police horse to Chairman Rupert Murdoch’s former top U.K. executive.
Rebekah Brooks, who resigned as chief executive officer of News Corp.’s U.K. unit days before her arrest in July in investigations of phone hacking and police bribery, asked about the loan after lunch with then-Metropolitan Police Commissioner Ian Blair in 2008, the former top cop said at a media-ethics inquiry today.
“I had absolutely no idea” about the loan, Blair said today. “It was not until I prepared for this event that someone raised the horse in legal discussion.” Blair, 58, said he doesn’t recall discussing the horse at lunch.
The inquiry, triggered by the voice-mail interceptions scandal at News Corp.’s News of the World tabloid, is examining the relationship between U.K. police and the press after a criminal probe in 2006 failed to uncover the extent of the practice. An inquiry lawyer, Robert Jay, has said the public feared the relationship between police and News International was “at best inappropriately close” and may be corrupt.
Blair led the force from 2005 to 2008, spanning the time when the News of the World’s private investigator Glenn Mulcaire and Royal Family reporter Clive Goodman were arrested and jailed for phone-hacking. The probe’s closure, without revealing that other reporters were involved or the existence of hundreds more victims, wasn’t a bid to “placate” News Corp., Blair said.
The Met’s press officer, Dick Fedorcio, was “telephoned by Rebekah Brooks” at the time, after she learned of the existence of the horse-loans arrangement, Blair said today. Fedorcio “arranged for her to go down and see the inspector in charge of horses and have a discussion about it.”
Fedorcio gave a witness statement to the inquiry saying the horse was discussed at Brooks’s lunch with Blair, he said.
“He will say this was discussed at the lunch and I have no recollection of that,” Blair said.
Brooks, an equestrian whose husband trains race horses, housed and fed the animal from 2008 to 2010 as part of a program for horses that are retired from service with mounted officers, the Met said Feb. 28.
Brooks edited the now-defunct News of the World tabloid, where the phone-hacking scandal started, and later edited News Corp.’s daily Sun newspaper, which is at the center of the bribery investigation. She has denied wrongdoing and hasn’t been charged.
Blair told the inquiry his son did a “work experience” job at the Sun when he was 15 years old. The Met declined to comment today.
Leveson also heard evidence today about Operation Nigeria, the Met’s 1999 investigation into private eye Jonathan Rees, who worked for News Corp.’s U.K. unit, News International, and other newspapers. Bob Quick, a former assistant commissioner at the Met, said the force didn’t investigate newspapers after finding evidence they used Rees to bribe officers for stories.
“We believed that the journalists that were paying the bribes were not paying them from their own funds” and possibly “the newspapers were in some way complicit in those payments,” Quick said. They chose not to go after the tabloids after debating “the strength of the evidence and the complexities related to journalistic privilege,” he said.
Lawyers for victims of media wrongdoing have said police ignored for years evidence of illegal behavior by newspaper companies due to a close relationship with journalists and their power to make the Met look bad. Another former police commissioner, Paul Stephenson, told the inquiry this week commanders were “obsessed” with their portrayal in the press.
Eleven current and former journalists at Murdoch’s Sun have been arrested in the bribery probe.
Separately, U.K. Attorney General Dominic Grieve said his office received a complaint about police officers’ testimony at the inquiry, potentially prejudicing the future criminal cases of people arrested in probes of wrongdoing by journalists.
Metropolitan Police Service Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers, who oversaw the probes, told the inquiry on Feb. 27 that the Sun newspaper had a “culture” of corrupt payments to public officials involving senior officers at the company.
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