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One of Britain's most popular newspapers has admitted that it hacked into the private voicemails of celebrities and politicians.
NPR's David Folkenflik reports that the story underscores close ties between the authorities and Rupert Murdoch's media empire.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Four years ago, a reporter and private investigator for the Sunday tabloid News of the World were prosecuted and sent to jail for hacking into the voicemail messages of Princes William and Harry.
Former top editor Andrew Coulson told a parliamentary inquiry two years ago he had resigned to take responsibility for something he had no knowledge of.
ANDREW COULSON: During that time, I never condoned the use of phone hacking, and nor do I have any recollection of incidences where phone hacking took place. My instructions to the staff were clear: We do not use subterfuge of any kind unless there was a clear public interest in doing so.
FOLKENFLIK: But that last part no longer appears to be true. Coulson went on to be communications director for the conservative Prime Minister David Cameron.
But earlier this year, the scandal flared again. In January, it became clear celebrities and government officials had also been hacked. And Coulson was forced to resign once again, from his senior job in the government.
Earlier this month, there were more arrests. The News of the World's former news editor, and its current chief reporter, were taken in for questioning by police on the suspicion of intercepting private voicemail messages. News International had previously dismissed the hacking allegations as an isolated case, fanned by their journalistic competitors.
In recent days, News International reversed itself, apologized, and set up a fund to compensate those victimized. But it's not clear the damage to the company will be contained.
ANDREW NEIL: Who knew - the old Watergate question - who knew, and when did you know it?
FOLKENFLIK: Andrew Neil is the former executive editor of the Sunday Times of London, one of Murdoch's most prestigious papers. He also helped found Murdoch's Sky TV.
NEIL: If it's now accepted that the rogue reporter defense has bitten the dust and is smashed to smithereens, if it's now accepted that it was going on all over the place in this newsroom, then it beggars belief that they didn't know. It is, frankly, incredible.
FOLKENFLIK: Many critics are now asking why the pattern of illegal hacking was not more aggressively investigated by the police at the time. The Metropolitan Police Force has been accused of being too cozy with the News of the World. In 2003, the then-editor of the News of the World, Rebekah Brooks, was asked about the relationship by a parliamentary panel.
Unidentified Man: Just the one element of whether you ever pay the police for information.
REBEKAH BROOKS: We have paid the police for information in the past.
FOLKENFLIK: Brooks is now chief executive of News International. Today, she issued a statement clarifying her testimony, saying she was referring to the press in general, not her own newsroom.
The deputy police commissioner who headed the initial phone hacking inquiry? He now writes a column for the Times of London. Roy Greenslade worked for Murdoch several times as a newspaper editor.
ROY GREENSLADE: Now, the view genuinely is that this showed that the police were either incompetent or, more worryingly, that there was a semiconspiracy, that they were too close to the News of the World and therefore, didn't want to investigate further.
FOLKENFLIK: News International has forged equally intense ties to the political establishment. Past Labour prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown courted Murdoch, and won his papers' endorsements. Recent reports suggest that senior government officials under Brown feared what the Murdoch papers might write in the coming election season. Murdoch's papers ended up backing their opponent, David Cameron.
Again, Roy Greenslade.
GREENSLADE: The whole episode illustrates the enormous power that Rupert Murdoch wields, in which politicians feel betokened to him for his support.
FOLKENFLIK: Murdoch needs the government's support, too. He's trying to win final approval for News International to gain total control of a major satellite TV company.
David Folkenflik, NPR News.
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