The media-ethics inquiry triggered by News Corp.’s phone-hacking scandal will hear evidence this week from the former chief executive officer of its U.K. unit and the tabloid editor who resigned over the practice in 2007.
Rebekah Brooks, who stepped down from the company’s top U.K. role in July, and Andy Coulson, who edited the now-defunct News of the World when the scandal started, will testify in London over two days starting tomorrow. The inquiry may avoid voice-mail interception questions because both have been arrested in probes of phone hacking and haven’t been charged.
The hearing will instead put the spotlight the pair’s close ties to Prime Minister David Cameron as the inquiry examines News Corp.’s relationship with lawmakers. The company’s critics and victims have argued its often cozy links to government prevented the extent of the scandal from being uncovered sooner.
“This will be a bad week for the Conservative party, as the media glare will refocus on the closeness between senior conservatives and senior executives at News Corp.’s U.K. unit,” said Niri Shan, who leads the media practice at Taylor Wessing LLP in London. Cameron is “potentially concerned about something Coulson or Brooks may say.”
Cameron sent a text message to Brooks shortly before she resigned as CEO of News International over the hacking scandal that told her to keep her “head up,” the Telegraph newspaper said today, citing a biography of the prime minister. Coulson will testify tomorrow and Brooks will appear on May 11.
Cameron and his top ministers last week won permission from Judge Brian Leveson, who is overseeing the inquiry, to have “core participant” status in the probe, meaning they will have advance access to prepared witness statements and documents. The government sought an emergency hearing to make the request.
U.K. police investigating the murder of teenage schoolgirl Milly Dowler said two voice mails were missing when they investigated her mobile phone in 2002 and those messages may have been deleted. News Corp.’s U.K. unit has apologized for hacking into Dowler’s phone and closed the News of the World tabloid that is at the center of the phone-hacking scandal.
One message was initially marked as saved, which could indicate that her mobile phone voice mail was illegally played, the police said in a statement read at the inquiry today. Still, automatic deletions in the voice-mail system, a platform upgrade at the wireless carrier and a lack of other evidence means “a definitive conclusion is not and may never be possible,” the police said.
Testimony at the inquiry by News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch and his son James last month led to calls for the resignation of Cameron’s Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt. An aide to Hunt stepped down after e-mails were released at the inquiry showing inside information about the politician’s views was given to News Corp. during its failed bid to buy the rest of British Sky Broadcasting Group Plc.
Cameron rode on Brooks’s horse on at least one occasion, shared meals with her and other News Corp. executives, and flew on a plane belonging to Murdoch’s son-in-law to Greece for a meeting on one of the family’s yachts, according to other evidence released by Leveson.
The inquiry may have a hard time getting details from Brooks, said Claire Enders, a media analyst at Enders Analysis, who advises clients including the U.K. government.
“It’s going to be like drawing blood from a stone,” Enders said in a phone interview. “She’s very quick with the ‘I don’t know’ and ‘I don’t recall.’ She’s certainly not going to volunteer information.”
Cameron Press Chief
Cameron hired Coulson as his press chief when the editor resigned from the News of the World after its Royal reporter Clive Goodman was jailed in 2007 for intercepting voice mail. Coulson quit his government job in 2011, a week before the police started a new phone-hacking probe.
Brooks’s spokesman, Steve Double, declined to comment. Coulson’s lawyer, Jo Rickards, didn’t immediately return a call for comment.
About 46 people have been arrested in probes of News Corp., including at least a dozen journalists at its daily Sun tabloid allegedly involved in bribery of police and public officials. Hugh Tomlinson, a lawyer for victims, said last month that the Sunday News of the World probably hacked into the voice mails of 1,174 people, citing information from the Metropolitan Police Service.
Brooks, who has been arrested twice, is prepared to release her text messages and e-mails with Cameron to the Leveson inquiry, the Sunday Times reported April 29.
“Brooks and Coulson are in a tricky position -- it is an opportunity for them to mount a defense, but it may be better for them to be economical with their answers given that they are currently under arrest and face possible criminal prosecution,” Shan said.
In a separate inquiry, the U.K. Parliament’s Culture Media and Sport Committee produced a report that accused Rupert and James Murdoch of “willful blindness” to wrongdoing at their newspapers and said the elder Murdoch was unfit to run an international company.