Thursday, 10 May 2012

0 PM's former aide takes stand at UK ethics inquiry

A former tabloid editor who became Prime Minister David Cameron's spin doctor told Britain's media ethics inquiry Thursday that Rupert Murdoch was a hands-off owner who did not meddle in his newspapers' editorial decisions or political positions.

PM's former aide takes stand at UK ethics inquiry

Andy Coulson -- who edited the tabloid News of the World when allegations first became public that it was involved in illegal phone-hacking -- was answering questions at a judge-led inquiry that has turned its attention to the sometimes too-cozy relationship between Britain's press and politicians.

Coulson's appearance has revived questions about Cameron's decision to hire the former tabloid editor.

British politicians of all parties for years have sought the support of newspapers -- especially Murdoch's best-selling tabloids, whose backing was credited with the power to swing elections. As the hacking scandal has unfolded, unease has grown about what favors the newspapers may have received in return.

Coulson said Murdoch had never told him what party the News of the World should support while he was the paper's editor between 2003 and 2007. He said the media mogul was a "warm and supportive" boss, but was in only irregular contact.

When he did call, "we discussed politics generally and he would give me his view on whatever was in the news at the time" -- without Murdoch interfering with the paper's editorial line, Coulson said.

Coulson said he did not discuss with Murdoch which party the newspaper should support in the 2005 national election.

"I followed my own path with it," said Coulson, opting to back Tony Blair's Labour Party, which won.

Coulson has insisted he did not know that News of the World employees were hacking voicemail messages of celebrities, politicians and crime victims in a quest for scoops and circulation.

He left the paper in 2007 after a reporter and a private investigator were jailed for hacking, and became Cameron's powerful media chief later the same year, helping return the Conservatives to power at the May 2010 national election. He quit 10 Downing St. in January 2011 as the hacking scandal intensified.

The inquiry led by Lord Justice Brian Leveson has already examined newspapers' relations with the public and the police.

Leveson said he would investigate whether the media organizations' relationships with politicians had "got out of hand."

"It is obvious that politicians will want to gain support and need support for the messages they want to convey," he said. "But ... is there a risk that there is an inappropriate press influence? "

Coulson's appearance at the inquiry will be uncomfortable for the Conservative prime minister, whose relationships with senior executives of Murdoch's News Corp. have embroiled him in the hacking furor.

Cameron has close ties to Coulson and to Rebekah Brooks, another ex-News of the World editor and former chief of Murdoch's British newspapers. She is due to testify to the inquiry on Friday.

Both Coulson and Brooks have been arrested and questioned by police about tabloid wrongdoing, though neither has been charged.

Speculation is rife about what the pair will reveal about their relations with Cameron and his Conservative Party, whose popularity is already at a low amid national economic gloom.

The Murdoch-owned Times of London newspaper reported Wednesday that Brooks has retained supportive text messages from the prime minister, a personal friend, neighbor and occasional riding companion in the upmarket rural enclave of Chipping Norton.

There is an irony in Cameron's discomfort. It was the prime minister who asked Leveson to lead an inquiry to sift through the fallout of the hacking scandal that has rocked Britain's establishment and rattled Murdoch's News Corp. with revelations of widespread journalistic malpractice.

The inquiry has heard from reporters, police and public figures in an effort to understand why nothing was done earlier to stop the phone hacking.

Murdoch shut the 168-year-old News of the World in July after evidence emerged that it had intercepted the phone messages of a missing schoolgirl, Milly Dowler, who was later found murdered.

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

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