NoW scandal: has Rupert Murdoch left it too late?
Alastair Campbell and co are determined to make Murdoch pay for ditching Labour
The BBC is reporting this morning that court documents suggest that Kelly Hoppen, the stylish stepmother of actress Sienna Miller and former partner of footballer Sol Campbell, may have had her phone hacked as late as last year.
The lawyers claim the new evidence implicates a News of the World reporter, Dan Evans, in hacking between June 2009 and March 2010. If it proves correct, it shows that Rupert Murdoch's desperate attempt to clean out the News International stables has come too late. The horse has bolted.
Murdoch cancelled his appearances at Davos - the annual snowy get-together for the world’s bankers - to fly into London and sort out the mess at the News of the World and his concurrent bid to take full control of BSkyB.
According to NoW insiders, Rupe told his executives before his arrival in town to "hunt down" anyone involved in hacking into celebrities' voicemail to get scoops. He told them to "root out" the truth and kill the scandal. Within hours, executives at the NoW had allegedly found four incriminating e-mails showing that Ian Edmondson, head of news at the NoW, was involved and he was out.
The e-mails were passed to Scotland Yard, who had no alternative but to reopen the investigation it had left on the shelf for four years. John Whittingdale, the genial Tory chairman of the Commons Culture Committee, has joined the old Labour lags such as John (Lord) Prescott in attacking the tardy police inquiry, asking why in this morning’s Guardian the police have been so slow.
It’s the wrong question, and the wrong target. The real question is why has it taken Rupert Murdoch four years to knock heads together at the NoW and "root out" the scandal.
The trail of deceit and lies in the telephone hacking scandal at News International leads directly to Murdoch's bid to regain ownership of his BSkyB satellite TV empire, according to Tony Blair's old spin doctor, Alastair Campbell.
Campbell reckons Murdoch is not bothered about the loss-making Times, or the Sunday Times, or the News of the World or even the Sun compared to the power and profits which his umbrella company, News Corporation, can get from the satellite operation.
Murdoch is afraid that his brand has become so mired in this hacking scandal that even his friend David Cameron will have no alternative but to refer his bid to the Competition Commission because of Rupe's predominant media holdings in Britain.
As Campbell said on Newsnight: "[Murdoch] is spitting blood about the whole thing and saying, 'What the hell has been going on? I want to get to the bottom of it.' Because they are trying to look good for the sake of the BSkyB takeover."
Campbell should know. He was the one who smoothed the path for Tony Blair to go on bended knee to Murdoch and win the backing of the Sun for New Labour to win the 1997 general election. Now Campbell sees Cameron paying court to Murdoch and he knows that it stinks. The difference now is that he is prepared to say it stinks.
The Edmondson e-mails blew apart the fiction the NoW has maintained for four years - that it was the actions of a 'rogue’'reporter, Clive Goodman, and his private eye sidekick, Glen Mulcaire, who were to blame and that no-one else at the paper was involved or even knew about the practice of voicemail hacking - including, of course, editor Andy Coulson.
Goodman and Mulcaire duly took the rap and did prison time. The police, with better things to do (in their view), left all the evidence to the contrary quietly gathering dust. But several celebrities who had been told by the police that they might have had their phone messages hacked into by the NoW - including Sienna Miller and her stepmother - launched civil actions to get at the truth.
Many have been paid off by Murdoch’s men for their silence. So far, it is not known how many were paid in out-of-court settlements - with gagging orders attached - nor what the sums were. But the PR guru Max Clifford is reputed to have been paid £1 million.
Andy Gray, the Sky Sports football commentator, was suing the NoW for hacking his voicemail when he was sacked this week for his unscripted sexist antics. Many believe it was because he was standing up to Rupert that he had to go.
We could well find out soon who exactly was hacked. Keith Vaz, Labour chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, has let it be known his committee intends publish the list of names of the celebrities drawn up by the police.
The Met, hugely embarrassed by their own incompetence, have now taken the inquiry out of the hands of acting deputy commissioner John Yates - the man at the Met who handles all the big political scandals, including Blair's cash-for-honours row - and appointed deputy assistant commissioner Sue Akers to sort out the mess. She may be Yates’s junior, but she will doubtless show a greater sense of urgency.
The Akers inquiry is almost certain to widen the net and may entangle other key Murdoch executives, but Rupert has shown he is prepared to sacrifice them for the sake of saving his BSkyB bid.
The real damage now could be to David Cameron himself because of his subservience to Murdoch.
Alastair Campbell and his allies in the Labour Party have not forgiven Murdoch for withdrawing his support of New Labour and switching his allegiance to Cameron's Tories at the last general election. They are now intent on making Murdoch and Cameron pay for it.
Cameron and his wife Samantha had dinner with Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International and a near neighbour, over Christmas. They did not discuss the telephone hacking case, it is claimed. But it beggars belief that they did not discuss the threat of a blocking reference to the Competition Commission of Murdoch's bid to buy back the 61 per cent of BSkyB that he does not already own.
Cameron removed the BSkyB issue from the hands of Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, when it became public knowledge that Cable was hostile to Murdoch. The hand grenade was passed instead to Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, no doubt with orders to bury it in the nearest mound of sand.
MPs began to smell the stink of scandal earlier this week when Hunt announced that BSkyB - uniquely - would be given more time to prepare their case against a reference to the Competition Commission, so that he could listen to special "undertakings in lieu" from News Corp. This was in spite of alarm being raised by the regulator Ofcom.
Whatever happens, Murdoch is unlikely to get the closure he so desperately wants. Campbell and co will see to that: having been dumped by Murdoch, they will not rest until his BSkyB bid is blocked.
It's a dirty story from which nobody emerges with anything other than the brown stuff all over their hands.
Colin Brown is a former political correspondent for the Independent. ·
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