British MPs blast Murdoch, Cameron in firing line

LONDON, July 20, 2011 (AFP) - British lawmakers Wednesday criticised attempts by Rupert Murdoch's News International to "thwart" phone-hacking probes, as Prime Minister David Cameron geared up for a parliamentary showdown over the crisis.

A day after Murdoch apologised over the scandal as he was grilled by lawmakers in London, a parliamentary committee released a report strongly criticising both the police and the media mogul's British newspaper wing.

"There has been a catalogue of failures by the (London) Metropolitan Police, and deliberate attempts by News International to thwart the various investigations," said lawmaker Keith Vaz, chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee.

AFP file - British Prime Minister David Cameron

Culture minister Jeremy Hunt piled on the pressure, expressing amazement on BBC radio that Tuesday's testimony from Rupert Murdoch and son James showed "so much wrongdoing seemed to happen without the knowledge of the people at the top".

Cameron was meanwhile preparing for the toughest showdown of his premiership Wednesday when he faces parliament amid mounting evidence of his links to phone-hacking suspects at the News of the World tabloid, axed this month over the scandal.

He arrived back in Britain late Tuesday after cutting short a trip to Africa to confront the crisis, as it emerged that his former media chief may have been advised by a recently arrested phone-hacking suspect.

Cameron extended parliament for an extra day to Wednesday to allow him to make the emergency statement, in which he will give further details of a judge-led inquiry into phone-hacking claims and illegal payments to police.

The home affairs committee rushed out their report a day after they grilled London's police chief and a deputy, who have both quit in recent days amid revelations about the force's links to Murdoch's empire.

The report strongly criticised senior police officer Andy Hayman, who led the original probe in 2006, saying his conduct was "both unprofessional and inappropriate."

It criticised him for taking a job with the Murdoch-owned Times newspaper shortly after leaving the police.

"We deplore the fact that Mr Hayman took a job with News International within two months of his resignation and less than two years after he was -- purportedly -- responsible for an investigation into employees of that company," it said.

The original police hacking probe led to the jailing of the News of the World's royal editor and a private investigator.

But despite mounting evidence that the practice was more widespread, the evidence lay untouched for years until police finally revived the probe in January.

The fresh probe sparked a crisis which rapidly escalated this month amid new phone-hacking allegations that led to the shock closure of the News of the World, the paper at the centre of the controversy.

New claims that an investigator working for the paper hacked into the phones of murdered teenager Milly Dowler and the relatives of dead British servicemen turned the controversy into a national outrage.

The scandal has rocked Murdoch's News Corp. media empire and claimed the scalps of some of his closest aides, including News International chief executive Rebekah Books and Les Hinton, chairman of Dow Jones.

When a parliamentary committee grilled Australian-born Murdoch and his son James on Tuesday, he said it was "the most humble day of my life" but denied that he had ultimate responsibility for the scandal.

His testimony was briefly interrupted when a protester splattered a foam pie over the 80-year-old. Murdoch's Chinese-born wife Wendi Deng sprang to his defence.

Police early Wednesday charged Jonathan May-Bowles, 26, over the attack.

In a message to staff on Wednesday, Murdoch vowed that News Corp. would bounce back from the scandal.

"I want all of you to know that I have the utmost confidence that we will emerge a stronger company," he said in the message, seen by AFP.

In the latest embarrassing revelation for Cameron, his Conservative party admitted that Neil Wallis, a former News of the World deputy editor arrested in recent days on suspicion of hacking, may have given "informal advice" to Cameron's then communications director Andy Coulson.

Coulson, who edited News of the World from 2003-2007, and Wallis have been arrested on suspicion of phone hacking and bribing police.

The crisis spread to Australia on Wednesday when Prime Minister Julia Gillard said that News Ltd, the Australian arm of Murdoch's media empire, had "hard questions" to answer over the scandal.

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