U.K. Defends Handling Of Phone Hacking Scandal

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The British home secretary is defending the government's handling of alleged newspaper phone hackers, accused of eavesdropping on royalty and other British nobles to publish sensational stories in the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World newspaper.


You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

In Britain, a scandal is raising questions about the governing Conservative Party's relationship with Rupert Murdoch's media empire. The scandal has been around awhile, involving a British tabloid and Scotland Yard. It has widened now that a report connected the case with a high-level member of the prime minister's staff.

Vicki Barker has the story from London.

VICKI BARKER: British Home Secretary Theresa May stood up before a fractious Parliament and said she would not, could not reopen a police investigation into alleged phone hacking by the News of the World tabloid.

Ms. THERESA MAY (Home Secretary, United Kingdom): The Metropolitan Police have indicated that if there is further evidence, they will look at it. That is the right course of action, and it is right for the government to await the outcome.

Unidentified Group: Yeah.

BARKER: The session dominated by a report in The New York Times that linked the tabloid's former editor, Andy Coulson, to the hacking. Coulson is now Prime Minister David Cameron's press secretary. Labour lawmaker Tom Watson served on a parliamentary committee, which exonerated Coulson, but he now believes British police failed to give him or public prosecutors the full picture.

Mr. TOM WATSON (Member of Parliament): The integrity of our democracy is under scrutiny around the world, Mr. Speaker. The home secretary must not join the conspiracy to make it a laughing stock.

Unidentified Group: Yeah.

BARKER: Another committee member, Adrian Sanders, from the conservatives' coalition partners, the liberal democrats, worried that Scotland Yard may have had too cozy a relationship with News of the World reporters who frequently break stories of big police busts.

Mr. ADRIAN SANDERS (Member of Parliament): The only way of getting to the bottom of this, surely, is a proper judicial inquiry...

Unidentified Group: Yeah.

Mr. SANDERS: ...so that people are compelled to give evidence, and they give that evidence on oath.

Unidentified Group: Yeah.

BARKER: This scandal has been building slowly since 2007. That's when a News of the World reporter was jailed for paying a private investigator to hack into the voicemails of aides to the royal family. The then-editor, Coulson, resigned over what he nevertheless insisted was a one-off case he'd known nothing about.

Last year, the liberal Guardian newspaper claimed News of the World journalists had also hacked into the phones of thousands of British celebrities, sports stars and politicians, and that Rupert Murdoch's News Group Newspapers had paid out about $1.5 million to keep the cases out of court.

By then, Coulson had become director of communications for the Conservative Party, and Rupert Murdoch had switched his support from the governing Labour Party to the Conservatives.

Then last week came The New York Times report. The source quoted by name, former News of the World reporter Sean Hoare, has since repeated his claim to British broadcasters.

Mr. SEAN HOARE (Former Reporter, News of the World): I have stood by Andy and been requested to tap phones, okay, or hack into them.

BARKER: Hoare acknowledges he was fired over a drink and drug problem but insists he's telling the truth.

Even the security services aren't supposed to tap the phones of British lawmakers, several have pointed out. So why on earth did Scotland Yard only go after the cases involving the royals?

Andrew Neil is a former editor of The Sunday Times of London.

Mr. ANDREW NEIL (Former Editor, The Sunday Times): The earlier investigations seem to have been quite superficial, people wonder what the relationship between the News of the World and Scotland Yard has been, so some of us are not so sure that the Met is ever going to get to the bottom of this unless it is under real pressure to do so.

BARKER: The News of the World claims The New York Times piece contains no new credible evidence. It accuses The Times of being motivated by commercial rivalry.

Coulson stands by his earlier denials. He says he'd be happy to talk to Scotland Yard again. David Cameron has said nothing, but his office has made it clear the prime minister is standing by his communications chief.

For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London.

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