David Cameron

LONDON — A committee of British lawmakers called Rupert Murdoch unfit to run his global media empire — a finding that reflects just how deeply the phone hacking scandal born of his defunct News of the World has shaken the relationship between the press and politics.

The divisive ruling Tuesday against Murdoch, his son James and three of their executives also exposed the waning influence of the media tycoon, and could jeopardize his control of a major broadcaster.

Parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport committee — a panel that scrutinizes the standards of Britain’s press and sports authorities — began an inquiry amid disclosures about widespread tabloid hacking of voice mail, concerns over bribes paid to police for scoops, and politicians who may have overstepped the bounds by cozying up to key players in the Murdoch empire.

Tarring the credentials of both the 81-year-old media mogul and James Murdoch, a former executive chairman of News Corp.’s U.K. newspaper division, the committee’s scathing words on the Murdochs could affect their controlling stake in British Sky Broadcasting.

Britain’s broadcasting regulator Ofcom acknowledged it was studying details of the report, which unanimously agreed that three key News International executives had misled Parliament — a verdict that can see offenders hauled before legislators to make a personal apology.

“We conclude, therefore, that Rupert Murdoch is not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company,” the report said.

In a message to News International staff, Murdoch said he found the findings “difficult to read” and that he deeply regretted what took place.

“We certainly should have acted more quickly and aggressively to uncover wrongdoing,” he wrote. “There is no easy way around this, but I am proud to say that we have been working hard to put things right.”

Among the 11-member committee, four lawmakers from Britain’s Conservative Party — which Murdoch’s flagship The Sun tabloid now supports — refused to endorse the report. It was supported by one Liberal Democrat and five members of the opposition Labour Party, which Murdoch ditched before Britain’s 2010 national election.

The chairman, a Conservative, did not vote in line with parliamentary convention.

Philip Davies said the conclusion on Murdoch supported by Labour members was “not only over the top, but ludicrous.”
The fallout has jolted Prime Minister David Cameron, who lost his top media adviser over the scandal and is fighting demands to sack a Cabinet minister over the links his office had to some of Murdoch’s key staff.

Cameron may also face new embarrassment if, as expected, Britain’s media ethics inquiry orders him and ex-News of The World editor Rebekah Brooks to disclose scores of text messages they exchanged while she ran the tabloid.

Murdoch closed down the 168-year-old News of the World in July amid a public outcry over intercepted voice mail of celebrities and the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.

Ofcom, which decides if broadcasters in the U.K. are “fit and proper” to hold a license, launched an inquiry last year into BkyB following revelations about phone hacking.

If the regulator were to determine that News Corp. does not meet that test, it could be forced to divest part of its 39 percent stake, depriving it of a controlling interest in the British broadcaster.

British law offers no legal definition of “fit and proper,” meaning that Ofcom must use its judgment in deciding whether executives should be trusted to hold a broadcasting license. Analysts say that likely leaves any Ofcom decision open to legal challenges in the courts.

The committee said the House of Commons would need to decide on the punishment meted out to the three executives accused of misleading it: Colin Myler, an ex-News of The World editor who now works as editor-in-chief at the New York Daily News; Tom Crone, the British tabloid’s longtime lawyer; and Les Hinton, the former executive chairman of News International and the former publisher of The Wall Street Journal.

All three issued statements denying they had misled the committee, or had taken part in any cover-up of phone hacking.

Parliament’s power to fine such offenders or send them to jail lapsed in the 18th century — and a cell underneath Big Ben has long been in disuse. However, offenders can be called to the House of Commons to be publicly admonished, a sanction last used against a non-lawmaker in 1957.

Murdoch has insisted he was unaware that hacking was widespread at the News of The World, blaming staff for keeping him in the dark and failing to inform him about payouts to victims.

The panel agreed that James Murdoch, 39, was badly at fault over the scandal — but they were again divided over the tone of their criticism. Lawmakers said they agreed that phone hacking at the News of The World dated back to at least 2001, and that James Murdoch could have halted the practice as early as 2008 if he had acted correctly.

James Murdoch had displayed a “lack of curiosity ... willful ignorance even,” in failing to demand evidence that would have shown the extent of phone hacking, the report said.

Legislators agreed that both Murdochs must be “prepared to take responsibility” for corporate failures.

“Everybody in the world knows who is responsible for the wrongdoing of News Corp. — Rupert Murdoch. More than any individual alive, he is to blame,” committee member Tom Watson, a Labour lawmaker and among the tycoon’s fiercest critics, told reporters. “It is his company, his culture, his people, his business, his failures, his lies, his crimes.”

Conservative panel members said divisions over Murdoch would undermine the serious findings made on Myler, Crone and Hinton — who worked as a top Murdoch aide on both sides of the Atlantic for decades and resigned from his post as the publisher of The Wall Street Journal amid the hacking scandal.

Legislators said Hinton had misled them over his repeated claim that hacking was not rife at the News of The World, while Myler and Crone had failed to present factual accounts of what they knew. All deny that charge.

Still, some analysts say the report’s savage criticism of the Murdoch empire could have implications in the United States.

Murdoch’s U.S. media empire includes the Fox television network and 20th Century Fox film studio, publisher Harper Collins, Dow Jones Newswires, The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post. He also owns British newspapers The Times, The Sunday Times and The Sun; the stake in BSkyB; and outlets around the world from broadcaster Sky Italia to Australian cable provider Foxtel.

“A question for Americans is whether his empire and methods will come under scrutiny in this country,” said Louis Ureneck, a journalism professor at Boston University.

News Corp. acknowledged the panel’s report had uncovered some “hard truths,” including that its “response to the wrongdoing was too slow and too defensive, and that some of our employees misled the select committee.”

However, it denounced “the unjustified and highly partisan” attack on Rupert Murdoch — noting objections raised by panel members.

The corporation has been rocked by the scandal, which has claimed the jobs of a string of senior executives and several top British police officers.

Lawmakers lambasted Britain’s top prosecutor and Scotland Yard’s initial failure to investigate tabloid wrongdoing properly.

The police dropped their phone hacking investigation in 2007, only beginning a new inquiry in 2010. London’s then police chief quit amid the scandal, while several serving police officers have been arrested.

Police appeared to have “no interest or willingness to uncover the full extent of the phone hacking,” and repeatedly failed to act on evidence they had, the report said.

A total of 43 people, including at least 25 past and present employees of News International, have been arrested in a new investigation into phone hacking, bribery and computer hacking.

Seeking not to prejudice those police inquiries, the panel declined comment on the culpability of ex-News of The World editors Brooks, an ex-News International chief executive, and Andy Coulson, the former communications director to Cameron.

Lawmakers did, however, criticize Brooks for a culture that permitted illegal acts at her newspaper in the Dowler case.

The claim that the tabloid not only listened to but interfered with messages left on the cellphone of 13-year-old Dowler in 2002 — before she was found dead — appalled many Britons as it exposed how grief-stricken ordinary people, in addition to celebrities and politicians, had been pursued.

Murdoch has so far paid out millions to settle lawsuits from 60 celebrities, athletes, politicians and other public figures whose voice mails were hacked. Dozens more lawsuits have been filed.

Printed on Wednesday, May 2, 2012 as: UK lawmakers call Murdoch 'unfit to run' media empire

LONDON — Dozens of officials in Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime will be blocked from attending the London Olympics, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron confirmed yesterday as he pledged to make the event “the greatest show on Earth.”

Cameron said those subject to international travel bans and asset freezes would not be able to attend the sporting spectacle, which takes place from July 27-Aug. 12.

“I don’t think we should punish the athletes for the sins of the regime, so Syria will be taking part in the games and that is right,” Cameron told reporters as he held talks with International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge, who was in town for the IOC’s final inspection visit before the games.

“But let’s be absolutely clear, Britain has led efforts within the European Union and elsewhere to institute asset bans, travel freezes and punishing sanctions against this despicable regime. Anyone covered by one of those travel bans will not be welcome in London,” Cameron said.

A total of 41 organizations and 127 people linked to the Syrian regime have had EU sanctions imposed upon them, including Assad’s British-born wife, Asma. Diplomats have conceded they could not prevent her from entering Britain, but insist they do not expect her to try to travel to the U.K. Britain’s Home Office, which is responsible for border control, will need to decide whether to grant a visa to attend the Olympics to Syrian Olympic Committee president Gen. Mowaffak Joumaa, a close Assad aide who is not currently covered by sanctions.

The ministry can deny entry if it feels an individual’s presence in Britain would not be “conducive to the public good.”

Published on Thursday, March 29, 2012 as: Britain welcomes Syrians not subject to travel bans to Olympics.

LONDON — Britain can no longer ignore that its influence on the world is shrinking amid the rise of developing nations, a panel of senior lawmakers said Thursday in a sharply critical report.

The group also said Britain should prepare for looser ties with the United States as the U.S. shifts its focus from western Europe.

Parliament’s Joint Committee on National Security Strategy, which includes an ex-head of the domestic MI5 spy agency, Eliza Manningham-Buller, rebuked Prime Minister David Cameron’s government over its failure to accept that the nation’s power is in decline as austerity measures trim the nation’s military and dent diplomatic ranks.

Britain’s national security strategy, published in October 2010, insisted that the U.K. would maintain its position as a major world power, despite budget constraints and the shift of economic might from the West to the developing world.

“This is wholly unrealistic in the medium to long term and the U.K. needs to plan for a changing, and more partnership dependent, role in the world,” the committee said in its report.

Cameron is making spending cuts worth about $162 billion through 2017 aimed at slashing Britain’s budget deficit, including an 8 percent reduction to its annual $58.8 billion defense budget over four years.

The panel of House of Commons and House of Lords members also urged Cameron to “reflect deeply on the long term implications” of the U.S. turning its attention away from Europe.

Dozens of hard-line Iranian students stormed the British embassy in Tehran bringing down the Union Jack flag and throwing documents from windows on Tuesday in scenes reminiscent of the anger against Western powers after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

TEHRAN, Iran — Hard-line Iranian protesters stormed British diplomatic compounds Tuesday, hauling down the Union Jack, torching an embassy vehicle and pelting buildings with petrol bombs in what began as an apparent state-approved show of anger over the latest Western sanctions to punish Tehran for defiance over its nuclear program.

The hours-long assault on the British Embassy and a residential complex for staff — in chaotic scenes reminiscent of the seizing of the U.S. Embassy in 1979 — could push already frayed diplomatic ties toward the breaking point.

Iran’s parliament approved a bill Sunday to downgrade relations with Britain, one of America’s closest allies with diplomatic envoys in the Islamic Republic.

Calling Tuesday’s attack “outrageous and indefensible,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said that Iran’s failure to defend the embassy and its staff was a disgrace and would have “serious consequences.”

The late-afternoon demonstration outside the British Embassy was organized by pro-government groups at universities and Islamic seminaries, and could not have taken place without official sanction. However, such anti-Western rallies often draw ultraconservative factions such as the basiji, a paramilitary group run by the powerful Revolutionary Guard that is directly controlled by Iran’s ruling theocracy.

“Death to England!” some cried outside the compound in the first significant assault of a foreign diplomatic area in Iran in years.

Chants called for the closure of the embassy and called it a “spy den” — the same phrase used after militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and held 52 hostages for 444 days. In the early moments of that siege, protesters tossed out papers from the compound and pulled down the U.S. flag. Washington and Tehran have had no diplomatic relations since then.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague downplayed suggestions of a hostage situation, saying there had been “confusing” reports coming out of Iran.

By nightfall — more than three hours after the assaults began — Iranian authorities appeared to have regained control of both British compounds. Riot police surrounded the embassy compound and officials said all protesters were driven out.

But sporadic clashes persisted, including some where police fired tear gas to disperse crowds, according to Fars, a semo-official Iranian news agency. Some protesters were arrested, it said.

The rally outside the British Embassy — on a main street in downtown Tehran about a mile from the former U.S. Embassy — included protesters carrying photographs of nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari, who was killed last year in an attack that Iran blamed on Israeli and British spy services.

The U.S. and many allies fear that Iran’s nuclear program could eventually lead to nuclear weapons. Tehran says it only seeks reactors for energy and research, but will not give up the technology to make its own nuclear fuel.

Meanwhile on Monday, the U.S., Britain and Canada announced more sanctions intended to further isolate Iran’s economy.

A senior U.S. official has dismissed Iran’s threats against NATO missile defense installations in Turkey ahead of a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to the key U.S. ally and linchpin of NATO’s southern flank.

Under the NATO plans, a limited system of U.S. anti-missile interceptors and radars already planned for Europe — to include interceptors in Romania and Poland as well as the radar in Turkey — would be linked to expanded European-owned missile defenses. That would create a broad system that protects every NATO country against medium-range missile attack.

Printed on Wednesday, November 30, 2011 as: Iranian students sack British embassy

PARIS — The leaders of France and Britain will make a quick visit to Libya on Thursday, an official with Libya’s governing body said, becoming the first foreign heads of government to travel to the country in the post-Moammar Gadhafi era.

There was no official confirmation of the visit by the offices of President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister
David Cameron.

“Our policy is never to comment on the prime minister’s schedule,” a spokesman for Cameron said on  condition of anonymity.

Suleiman Fortia, a representative of the Libyan city of Misrata to the National Transitional Council, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the two leaders were expected to visit.

France and Britain pressed for NATO action to protect civilians against Gadhafi’s troops, and a French aircraft was the first to fly in the air campaign over Libya. France was the first country to recognize the council, known as the NTC, the closest thing to a government that Libya currently has.

“Those who helped us, we are so happy to receive them as the first leaders to come,” Fortia said.

Sarkozy and Cameron will visit Benghazi and Tripoli, according to Fortia. “We also invite them to visit Misrata because this is the place which showed Gadhafi how Libya is strong,” he said. He added that he did not know whether the invitation would be accepted during Thursday’s trip.

The western port city of Misrata was a stronghold of the revolt against Gadhafi’s 42-year-long rule, playing a central role in the war. The former rebels swept into the capital Aug. 21.

Gadhafi is being hunted down but numerous close family members have fled to neighboring Algeria and to Niger.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is also expected to visit Libya this week.

A protestor wearing a Rupert Murdoch mask is photographed by media outside parliament in London, Tuesday, July 19, 2011. Britain's Conservative Party says a former News of the World executive may have given the prime minister's former communications chief advice before the 2010 national election. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

LONDON — Britain's Conservative Party said Tuesday a recently arrested phone-hacking suspect may have advised Prime Minister David Cameron's communications chief before the 2010 election.

Former News of the World executive editor Neil Wallis was arrested last week on suspicion of conspiring to intercept communications as part of a broadening investigation into phone hacking at the now-defunct tabloid.

Police also recently arrested Andy Coulson, a former News of the World editor who became Cameron's communications chief before resigning in January amid allegations he was aware of phone hacking at the newspaper.

The Conservatives said Monday it has been brought to the party's attention that Wallis "may have provided Andy Coulson with some informal advice on a voluntary basis before the election."

"We are currently finding out the exact nature of any advice," the party said in a statement. It said that neither Cameron nor any senior members of the campaign team were aware of the fact until this week.

The party said that it reviewed its own records and could confirm that Wallis was never contracted to or paid by the Conservatives.

Wallis also worked as a media consultant to the Metropolitan Police, a revelation that prompted the resignations of London police chief Paul Stephenson and, a day later, assistant commissioner John Yates.

When asked about his relationship with Wallis, Stephenson said he had "no reason to connect Wallis with phone hacking" when he was hired for the part-time job in 2009. He said now that the scale of phone hacking at the paper has emerged, it's "embarrassing" that Wallis worked for the police.