When News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch landed in Britain a week ago, July 10, as the phone-hacking scandal began to engulf his media empire, he gave a surprising, revealing and, some said, insensitive answer to the question of what his priority was. Turning to his right-hand woman, Rebekah Brooks, and placing his hand on her arm, he declared: "This one." So far, in that respect and all others, Murdoch hasn't been very successful at damage control. Five days after he uttered those two words, Brooks quit her job as CEO of Murdoch's U.K. operation News International and on Sunday, she was arrested on suspicion of phone hacking and corruption. (Brooks was released by the police late Sunday.)
Later on the same day, London police commissioner Paul Stephenson abruptly resigned amid claims that Scotland Yard itself had been involved in the hacking scandal. Stephenson has denied any wrongdoing, and in a press conference Sunday he said his position was "in danger of being eclipsed by the ongoing debate by senior officers and the media. And this can never be right."
The two stunning developments were just the latest shocks in the saga that has already resulted in nine arrests, the creation of a judicial inquiry into the affair and Murdoch closing his beleaguered News of the World title, ditching his $12.5 billion bid to buy out satellite broadcaster BSkyB and offering fulsome apologies in national newspapers to the victims of the hacking scandal. Brooks was editor of the paper between 2000 and 2003, during which the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, among others, is alleged to have been hacked, and its messages deleted, while she was still missing. That report on July 4 lit the fire under the ongoing hacking story, sparking public and political outrage and leading to the creation of a full judicial inquiry into the scandal to run alongside the continuing police and parliamentary investigations.
No one, not even his sons and daughters, has been closer to Murdoch and his business dealings than the former News of the World editor, and her arrest leaves the shadow of scandal creeping closer to the Murdoch clan itself, with speculation raging in London over who will be getting a visit from Scotland Yard next. It has also added a sharper edge to the much anticipated appearance of Rupert and James Murdoch before a parliamentary committee on Tuesday afternoon to answer detailed and, we are promised, forensic questioning on the scandal by politicians from all sides.
The parliamentarians have a long list of questions concerning alleged hacking practices, payoffs to top cops, cover-ups and previous lies to Parliament, which they intend to put to the Murdochs. Brooks was also intending to be there but now may not attend because of her arrest. Brooks has denied any wrongdoing on her part, and her lawyer said Sunday that before she was arrested, she was under the impression that she was attending a voluntary interview with the police as a witness. Tuesday's hearing promises, nonetheless, to be an extraordinary committee session the likes of which has not been seen in the U.K. Parliament for decades.
But while the world's media focus their attention on the Wilson committee room in Parliament on Tuesday afternoon, a second, separate committee will be taking evidence just along the corridor on the scandal underlying every other aspect of this affair alleged corruption at the heart of Scotland Yard itself. The chief witness at the hearing was supposed to be none other than Paul Stephenson.
In fact, on the very same day that Brooks was being arrested by officers from the Metropolitan Police and hours before Stephenson stepped down, the Sunday Times, one of Murdoch's stable of newspapers, reported on its front page that the commissioner had accepted $19,300 worth of accommodation and meals at a health spa while he was recovering from an operation earlier this year.
The spa, Champneys, just happened to employ former News of the World deputy editor Neil Wallis in a p.r. role at the time, the same man Stephenson had employed on a part-time basis from October 2009, four months after he left the News of the World, to September 2010. Wallis was arrested on July 14 in connection with the hacking investigation and later released on bail. Both Champneys and the police have insisted the services were provided because the manager of the spa was a personal friend of Stephenson's and that the commissioner had not been aware that Wallis had worked for the company.
But that will do little to calm the speculation surrounding Scotland Yard's role in the hacking scandal, especially after Stephenson's resignation. On Monday the British Home Secretary, Theresa May, is to make a statement to Parliament expressing her concerns over the Met's decision to employ Wallis.
Politicians on all sides, including London Mayor Boris Johnson, praised Stephenson for doing the "honorable" thing in resigning his post for events he insists he was unaware of, but which happened on his watch, and insisted he had done a good job running the capital city's police force.
But the opposition Labour Party said his decision was in sharp contrast to the behavior of Prime Minister David Cameron, who continued to employ former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his communications chief on Downing Street despite that Coulson had previously resigned his editorship of the paper over the hacking affair, although he continued to insist he knew nothing of the wrongdoing.
Coulson eventually resigned from Downing Street in January as the scandal refused to die down, but there have been persistent claims that Cameron and his senior aides were warned not to employ him. As a result, this scandal has already battered the Prime Minister's reputation and will continue to do so, with the Labour Party demanding a full explanation from him of the circumstances surrounding his employment of and friendship with Coulson.
Meanwhile, the scandal continued to escalate in the U.S., where Dow Jones CEO and Wall Street Journal publisher Les Hinton, a longtime Murdoch lieutenant who ran News International from 1995 to 2007, resigned on Friday. The newest allegations were that actor Jude Law and his assistant had their phones hacked by the News of the World in New York City in 2003. If true, that could amount to the first such instance in the U.S., where some have already accused the same paper of hacking the phones of 9/11 victims or their families, charges the FBI is reportedly investigating.
In the longer term, there are growing signs that Murdoch's media empire in Britain may not be able to survive the scandal intact, even after its closing of the News of the World. Opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband suggested on Sunday that Murdoch had an "unhealthy" share of the media and called for new rules limiting ownership by one company. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg later backed the suggestion.