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by Euro Reporter
2011-07-13 10:45:29
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Politicians’ gun for Murdoch

After holding out for a week, media baron Rupert Murdoch referred a controversial bid to take over British broadcaster BSkyB to the country’s Competition Commission. But his reported plan to buy time ran against the full weight of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who on Tuesday accused his British newspapers of hiring “known criminals.” Brown became the senior most political leader to join a growing chorus of outrage against Murdoch’s British subsidiary News International, when he accused its leading daily tabloid, ‘The Sun’, of “working through links that they had to the criminal underworld” to get news stories.

The former Labour leader and finance minister said he and his wife Sarah were left “in tears” in 2006 when the paper called up to inform them that it was running with a story about his infant son Fraser’s illness — cystic fibrosis. “If I, with all the protection and all the defences and all the security that a chancellor of the exchequer or a Prime Minister has, [am] so vulnerable to unscrupulous tactics, unlawful tactics, to methods that have been used in the way that we've found — what about the ordinary citizen?” Brown said. Murdoch’s stable of newspapers is accused of hacking into the voicemail messages of celebrities, the royal family, a murdered schoolgirl and families of war dead and terror victims.

He shut down the main paper facing the charges, the ‘News of the World’, but others too are now thought to have employed similar means. As anger spread among MPs and ordinary Britons, News Corp bowed to demands to refer the BSkyB bid to the Competition Commission — an offer that was gratefully seized by prime minister David Cameron. Murdoch is already the controlling shareholder in BSkyB, which owns Sky Television, but wants to increase its stake from the current 39% to 100% — a move that is bitterly opposed by British MPs across the political landscape.


Inflation shows surprise dip

British inflation fell unexpectedly in June and the trade gap widened, pointing to more weakness in the economy and providing support to those in the Bank of England who want to keep interest rates at a record low. Since the release of weak industrial output and construction data last week, economists have increasingly predicted very low growth or even contraction for the second quarter of 2011. Tuesday’s trade and inflation data point to poor consumer demand for non-essentials and a failure of exports to keep pace with rising imports. Figures released overnight showing falling house prices and sluggish retail sales growth only strengthened this outlook.

The Office for National Statistics said consumer price inflation fell to 4.2 per cent in June from a 2½ year high of 4.5 per cent in May, after the first drop in prices for a month of June since 2003. The figures are likely to bring some reassurance to Bank of England Governor Mervyn King, who has said repeatedly that the factors behind soaring prices are likely to be temporary, and warned on Monday that attempts to bring inflation down quickly could harm the economy. Discounting of video games and other consumer electronics helped drive the fall, suggesting retailers are responding to weak demand. Mobile phone charges and insurance premiums also rose more slowly, and the core rate of CPI—which excludes rising fuel and food prices—eased to 2.8 per cent, it’s lowest since November 2010.

“This might be the first real sign that the weakness of households’ spending power is starting to bear down on underlying price pressures in the high street,” said Jonathan Loynes of Capital Economics. British consumers are scaling back spending as soaring prices, higher taxes and slow wage growth hit their budgets. Europe’s second-biggest travel firm Thomas Cook warned on Tuesday its full year profit would be lower than expected, citing difficult conditions in Britain. British inflation has been much higher than in other developed economies since the financial crisis—partly due to sterling’s weakness and sales tax rises—and economists still expect CPI to exceed 5 per cent later this year.


"Unhealthy and corrosive": UK media's cosy ties to police

"The basic test of a decent police force is that it catches more criminals than it employs." That adage, coined by Robert Mark, a Metropolitan Police Commissioner in the 1970s, might just as easily be applied to another profession with a similar stake in the public's trust -- investigative journalism. In the wake of the UK's hacking scandal, the British public seems to have reason for concern on both counts. The scandal that began at Rupert Murdoch's News of the World tabloid has tarnished the media magnate and British politicians alike. It has also exposed the sometimes cosy, sometimes sinister relationship between parts of Fleet Street and Scotland Yard, the British capital's legendary police force. An independent police complaints watchdog is investigating media allegations that News of the World reporters paid tens of thousands of pounds in "bungs," or bribes, to police officers for information about celebrities, royals and other story subjects.

Scotland Yard has also admitted it bungled its initial handling of the hacking allegations, accepting assurances from executives from News International, Murdoch's British press arm, that the problem was limited to a single rogue reporter. Assistant Commissioner John Yates told the Sunday Telegraph his July 2009 decision not to reopen the police investigation into the hacking claims "was a pretty crap one" in light of the complaints about phone intrusions then flooding in to the Yard from celebrities and politicians. At the same time, at least five senior police investigators on the case discovered that their own cell phone messages had been targeted by the News of the World, according to the New York Times. That claim raises the possibility that police may have gone soft in their investigation because they feared having details of their private lives appear in the tabloid. Allegations about two of the officers did eventually appear in other news outlets. A parliamentary committee will today grill four senior officers about their failure to properly investigate the phone hacking allegations.

The worst excesses uncovered in this case -- phone hacking in particular -- may now end. But both reporters and police say the practice of bribing low-level officers for information -- the identity of a suspect, the time someone will be arrested -- will not. "This type of activity has been going on since the creation of the police service and no national newspaper worth its salt, if it wants to stay competitive, is going to stop doing this kind of thing," a former police officer told Reuters. "I don't think you can end it, because there's too much demand from the media," said the former officer, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the subject. One of the most serious allegations of police corruption to emerge from the hacking scandal involves convicted criminal Jonathan Rees, a private investigator used by the News of the World to obtain information on politicians, senior civil servants, central bankers and members of the royal family. Rees was charged with murdering Daniel Morgan, his business partner in a private investigations agency they ran, in 1987. But after a protracted legal process that involved five inquiries into the killing the case against him collapsed in March this year. Prosecutors said important evidence had not been disclosed to the defence.

Commenting on the failure of the case, Detective Chief Superintendent Hamish Campbell said the initial probe of the killing, decades earlier, had been flawed. "This current investigation has identified, ever more clearly, how the initial inquiry failed the family and wider public. It is quite apparent that police corruption was a debilitating factor in that investigation. This was wholly unacceptable." The failures may also have come because of pressure from the tabloid. Former Scotland Yard detective Dave Cook told Reuters he now plans to sue the publishers of the News of the World for harassment and hacking his phone while he was investigating the high-profile axe murder. Rees emerged as a key figure in the scandal because former News of the World editor Andy Coulson reportedly hired him as an investigator when he ran the weekly. Prime Minister David Cameron later hired Coulson as his communications director. Did Coulson know of Rees's past -- it also involved a prison term for conspiring to deceive -- when he hired him? And did Cameron know of Coulson's use of a criminal when he hired him to work at Number 10? Alastair Morgan, brother of murder victim Daniel, wants answers. While the authorities conducted numerous probes of the killing itself, "they've never done an inquiry into the mishandling of the case." "There's a deeply unhealthy and corrosive relationship between the News of the World and the Metropolitan police," Morgan told Reuters. "We've only just begun to delve into it."

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