Graham Bowley, Don Van Natta Jr. – New York Times July 19, 2011
The British phone-hacking scandal crept closer to Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain on Tuesday when his party admitted that another former news executive recently arrested may have provided informal public relations advice before last year’s election.
The Conservative Party said that the executive, Neil Wallis, may have provided Mr. Cameron’s communications director, Andy Coulson, with unpaid advice on a voluntary basis and that it was looking into the matter. Mr. Wallis had been Mr. Coulson’s deputy at The News of the World, the newspaper in Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, now defunct, at the center of the phone-hacking scandal, but left in 2009. Mr. Coulson was arrested July 8 as part of the police investigation into phone hacking by reporters at The News of the World.
The latest revelations were likely to prove uncomfortable for Mr. Cameron, who has repeatedly had to explain his decision to hire Mr. Coulson and defend his close relations with Mr. Murdoch’s executives in Britain. Mr. Cameron cut short a state visit to Africa to address a special debate on phone hacking in Parliament on Wednesday.
Mr. Wallis was arrested last week, when it also emerged that he had been working as a public relations consultant for the Metropolitan Police Service, more commonly called the Met or Scotland Yard. That revelation raised additional questions about the close ties between Mr. Murdoch’s newspapers and the police, which led to inquiries into five current and former senior Metropolitan Police officials by the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
The extent of the interconnections between those newspapers and the police, and the strains Mr. Cameron’s government has gone through to keep its distance from the widening scandal, emerged in fresh testimony by some of Britain’s most senior police officers in Parliament on Tuesday.
In harsh questioning in front of the Home Affairs Committee, the senior officers revealed that 10 of the Met’s 45-member media relations department are former News International employees.
The senior officers, Sir Paul Stephenson, the commissioner of Scotland Yard who resigned on Sunday, and John Yates, the former assistant commissioner who resigned on Monday, also said Mr. Cameron’s chief of staff had stopped them from informing Mr. Cameron about the scandal and the employment of Mr. Wallis by the Met. Sir Paul said they had been advised against briefing Mr. Cameron on the issue because of the risk of linking him to it.
Barraged by media inquiries about this, Mr. Cameron’s office quickly released e-mails from September 2010 between Mr. Yates and the chief of staff, Ed Llewellyn, confirming Sir Paul’s explanation.
In one e-mail, Mr. Llewellyn wrote: “I am sure you will understand that we will want to be able to be entirely clear, for your sake and ours, that we have not been in contact with you about this subject. So I don’t think it would really be appropriate for the PM, or anyone else at No. 10, to discuss this issue with you.”
The request alone highlights the difficulties Mr. Cameron has on this issue because of his decision to hire Mr. Coulson as his communications director at 10 Downing Street. Mr. Coulson resigned in late January.
In a separate development underscoring the intertwined relations between Mr. Murdoch’s newspapers and the police, The Evening Standard on Tuesday reported that The News of the World’s former chief reporter worked as an official source for the police under the code name George. The Evening Standard reported that the journalist, Neville Thurlbeck, passed information to the police in return for confidential information from the police national database.
Mr. Thurlbeck, who was questioned in the phone hacking investigation, was unavailable for comment Tuesday evening.
Along with Mr. Yates, lawmakers questioned Dick Fedorcio, the police communications director now being investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission over his links with Mr. Wallis. The two traded blame over who was responsible for hiring Mr. Wallis. Mr. Fedorcio said Mr. Yates had done “due diligence” on Mr. Wallis, but Mr. Yates hit back, saying he had only sought assurances from Mr. Wallis that he had done nothing that could embarrass the police force. He said Mr. Fedorcio’s statement was “slightly over-egging the pudding.”
Mr. Yates is under investigation by police authorities examining whether he helped Mr. Wallis’s daughter get a job with the police. At the hearing, he said he had only passed on an e-mail and résumé to the head of human resources in the police service.
He “simply acted as a postbox,” he said.
Alan Cowell contributed reporting.