Murdochs in dock over phone-hacking scandal

LONDON, July 19, 2011 (AFP) - Media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, son James and former top aide Rebekah Brooks on Tuesday faced a dramatic showdown with British lawmakers over the phone-hacking scandal which has enraged the nation.

The under-fire trio were to appear before a parliamentary committee to break their silence over the escalating crisis which on Monday claimed the scalp of a second police chief.

Earlier, Prime Minister David Cameron announced he was to cut short a trip to Africa to deal with a scandal that threatens his own position.

AFP - The Wall Street Journal is viewed on July 18, 2011 in Washington,DC. The News Corp.-owned Wall Street Journal blasted critics Monday for double standards and insisted that the phone-tapping scandal in Britain should not tarnish all of Rupert Murdoch's media empire.

In a bizarre twist, a whistleblower at the heart of the scandal was found dead at his home on Monday but police were not treating the death as suspicious.

News International (NI), Murdoch's British newspaper arm, was believed to have taken down its webpages Tuesday after the Lulz Security hacker group replaced The Sun's online version with a fake story pronouncing the mogul's death.

The Murdochs and former NI chief executive Brooks faced a harrowing afternoon Tuesday in front of the cross-party Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which was to demand the trio "account for the behaviour" of the tainted media giant.

James Murdoch, chief executive of parent company News Corp's Europe and Asia operation, promised to be the focus of scrutiny over payments he is alleged to have approved to the victims of hacking.

At an appearance before the committee in 2003, Brooks admitted police had been paid for stories but later claimed she meant by the industry in general.

Parliament summoned the trio to appear after the Murdochs originally claimed they could not attend and member Therese Coffey last week promised "robust questioning".

Assistant police commissioner John Yates, who refused to reopen an investigation into the now-defunct News of the World tabloid in 2009, resigned Monday, a day after the departure of his boss Paul Stephenson, chief of London's Metropolitan Police.

Yates had expressed regret last week over his earlier decision that the inquiry into the Murdoch-owned paper did not need to be revived, but pinned the blame on Murdoch's empire for failing to cooperate.

Yates was one of the Met's most senior officers and had responsibility for special operations, but came under fire after detectives reopened the investigation in 2011 and found thousands of alleged hacking victims.

He quit when he found out he was about to be suspended.

As the scandal kept scything through the heart of the British establishment, Cameron's aides announced that he would cut short a visit to South Africa and Nigeria, flying back on Tuesday evening instead of early Wednesday.

They said the Conservative leader wanted to prepare a statement that he will deliver during an emergency session of parliament on Wednesday.

Cameron has also been forced to defend his own position after Stephenson, Britain's most senior police officer, took a swipe at the prime minister's decision to hire former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his media chief.

Stephenson quit on Sunday over the force's hiring of Neil Wallis -- who was deputy to Coulson at the tabloid -- and over a spa break he accepted from a firm where Wallis was a consultant.

"I don't believe the two situations are the same in any way, shape or form," Cameron told a news conference during his South African visit when asked about a comparison with the troubles at Scotland Yard.

Coulson resigned from Downing Street in January and was arrested on July 8. Wallis was arrested on July 14.

Cameron has also been criticised over his close ties with News International executives. The Daily Telegraph reported Tuesday that he invited Rebekah Brooks to his 44th birthday party last October.

Ex-News of the World show business reporter Sean Hoare alleged in interviews with The New York Times newspaper and the BBC last year that Coulson knew about voicemail hacking.

Hoare was found dead early Monday at his home in Watford, north of London, Hertfordshire Police said in a statement.

"The death is currently being treated as unexplained, but not thought to be suspicious," it said.

The Guardian newspaper said Hoare had long-term drink and drug problems.

The crisis took its toll on parent company News Corp.'s financial health as Standard & Poor's warned Monday its credit rating could be cut.

Brooks, editor of News of the World when it allegedly hacked a murdered girl's phone, resigned from her post last week and was arrested on Sunday on suspicion of phone hacking and bribing police.

Her lawyer Stephen Parkinson said she was "not guilty of any criminal offence".

An original police investigation into the tabloid in 2006 led to the jailing of its former royal editor and a private investigator, but it later emerged that thousands more celebrities, royals and even crime victims also had their voicemails targeted by alleged "industrial-scale" hacking.

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