Scotland Yard chief resigns in tabloid scandal
The head of Scotland Yard resigned amid a phone-hacking scandal that has reached into the highest levels of public life in Britain, a shocking turn of events that came hours after the arrest of one of media baron Rupert Murdoch’s most trusted deputies.
Paul Stephenson on Sunday night said he was stepping down as commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service, as Scotland Yard is formally known, because of continued criticism and speculation over links between senior police officials and Murdoch’s media empire.
Stephenson’s announcement came hours after Rebekah Brooks, the former chief of Murdoch’s British operations, was arrested on suspicion of conspiring to intercept private voicemail messages and on corruption charges stemming from bribes allegedly paid to police officers by journalists in exchange for information.
The two surprising developments are certain to focus greater attention on Murdoch’s scheduled appearance Tuesday before a parliamentary committee to answer questions on the allegations of large-scale cellphone hacking by the News of the World, a now-defunct tabloid owned by his media conglomerate News Corp.
The scandal has reached far beyond the media to envelop the police, who have been accused of conducting a halfhearted investigation into the hacking allegations in order to preserve a good relationship with the press, and high-ranking politicians, who have also been criticized for maintaining too-cozy ties with the media, Murdoch’s newspapers in particular.
Public confidence in key institutions of British society — the police, politicians and the press — has now been badly shaken.
Stephenson acknowledged that Scotland Yard’s initial inquiry of allegations of phone hacking by the News of the World several years ago was inadequate, though he said he could only rely on the word of his subordinates that the investigation had been thorough and successful.
He said he was unaware of the existence of about 11,000 pages of evidence seized from a private investigator hired by the News of the World — papers that showed the tabloid may have ordered the hacking of the cellphones of nearly 4,000 people, including celebrities, politicians and crime victims.
Stephenson also rejected allegations of impropriety over Scotland Yard’s decision to hire a former executive editor of the News of the World as a part-time public-relations consultant in 2009, at a time when the police were being pressed to renew their investigation into the hacking allegations. That editor, Neil Wallis, has since been arrested in connection with the scandal, raising questions about Stephenson’s judgment.
“As commissioner, I carry ultimate responsibility for the position we find ourselves in. With hindsight, I wish we had judged some matters involved in this affair differently. I didn’t and that’s that,” he said in a prepared statement.
The hacking allegations are now the subject of a massive new investigation by Scotland Yard headed by officers who were not involved in the original effort. Stephenson said the new inquiry would give the police “the opportunity to right the wrong done to victims.”
He said it was important for him to step down now to allow the appointment of a new commissioner in good time before London hosts the Summer Olympics in 2012, which will require a mammoth security operation.
Stephenson brushed aside another controversy over his acceptance of a free stay at a spa connected to Wallis.
“My integrity is completely intact. I may wish we had done some things differently, but I will not lose any sleep over my personal integrity,” he said emphatically.
Earlier Sunday, Brooks became the highest-ranking executive in Murdoch’s media empire to be arrested in connection with the scandal. After being questioned, she was released on bail early Monday, British news reports said.
Until her resignation Friday, Brooks was head of News International, News Corp.'s British subsidiary, and one of Murdoch’s closest confidants. She served as editor of the News of the World from 2000 to 2003. In 2002, the paper is believed to have hacked into the cellphone of a kidnapped 13-year-old girl who was later found slain.
Last week, both Stephenson and Brooks were called to appear at the same parliamentary committee hearing as Murdoch to give evidence. Stephenson is still expected to attend Tuesday; Brooks’ participation has now been thrown into doubt.
For Murdoch, the challenge Tuesday will be to strike the right note of humility and contrition, to answer questions as truthfully as he can while protecting his company’s interests, and to remember that his audience extends far beyond the handful of lawmakers before him to millions of television viewers worldwide.
Analysts said it was the media mogul’s only hope for salvaging a reputation so badly battered that a man once powerful enough to make British lawmakers come running finds himself being peremptorily summoned by them instead.
“Sackcloth and ashes from now on” is how Brian Cathcart, a journalism professor and member of a campaign demanding full accountability over the scandal, described the attitude Murdoch must adopt to keep public opinion here from further hardening against him.
Over the weekend, News International took out full-page advertisements in several British newspapers apologizing for the “serious wrongdoing” at the News of the World and promising the company’s “full cooperation” with police.
Paul Connew, a former deputy editor of the News of the World and now a public-relations consultant, expects Murdoch to maintain a sorrowful tone at the committee hearing.
“My hunch would be that Rupert would want to make an opening statement when it comes to his turn and make a public apology,” Connew said.
“The more candid he is, the more chance … the damage control could be pretty successful,” Connew said.
Murdoch, News Corp.'s chairman, will almost certainly deny any personal knowledge of phone hacking at the News of the World. Since the tabloid represented only a minuscule part of his media empire, his denials will seem plausible, analysts say.
It will be considerably more difficult for his son, James, and Brooks to claim ignorance, as they have until now.
The younger Murdoch, chairman of News International, authorized an out-of-court payment of more than $1 million to a hacking victim in 2008, which critics say looks far more like hush money than compensation for an invasion of privacy. James Murdoch maintains that he was not given a full picture by his staff of what was happening at the News of the World when he approved the payout.
Although most parliamentary committee hearings are dull, technical affairs that attract little outside interest, Tuesday’s session, which will be broadcast live, is almost certain to draw a global audience.
Patrick Dunleavy, a political analyst at the London School of Economics, said the quality of the questioning by the committee is likely to vary widely. Some lawmakers may relish an opportunity to vent their spleen against a media kingpin before whose power they once trembled; others may ask strong first questions but flail at follow-up ones.
Many of the committee members “are going to be completely out of their depth,” Dunleavy said. “It’s not like Congress where congressional committees are used to having masses of cameras and masses of people hanging on every word.
“It’s probably going to be the globally most watched select committee event ever in the entire history of the U.K. Parliament.”