UK deputy PM: Chance to clean up press-gov’t ties

LONDON (AP) ? Britain’s phone-hacking scandal gives the country a chance to clean up improper relationships among politicians, journalist and law-enforcement officials, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said Thursday.

Clegg defended Prime Minister David Cameron, however, over questions about whether he had improper discussions with executives of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. about its hope of taking full control of cable network British Sky Broadcasting.

Clegg said he hoped a wide-ranging, judge-led inquiry would lead to solutions of the problems underlying the scandal, which has rocked the British establishment with allegations of phone hacking and bribery of police by Murdoch’s now-defunct Sunday tabloid News of the World.

“I think that we now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to really clean up the murky practices and dodgy relationships which have taken root at the very heart of the British establishment between the press, politicians and the police,” Clegg said.

In the House of Commons on Wednesday, Cameron ducked questions about whether he had discussed the BSkyB bid with News Corp. executives, but insisted: “I never had one inappropriate conversation.”

Cameron said he had no role in deciding whether News Corp. would be given regulatory clearance to make a bid, leaving that decision with Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt. News Corp. aborted the bid before Hunt reached a final decision.

“He (Cameron) was very open, he said no inappropriate discussions took place and he played absolutely no role whatsoever in the decision-making about the BSkyB bid. I think those points speak for themselves,” Clegg said.

The Guardian newspaper reported Thursday that Andy Coulson, the former News of the World editor who was Cameron’s communications director before resigning in January, had received a lower security clearance than the one held by Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s communications chief, and others who held the post in Labour Party governments.

The Cabinet Office said Coulson was subjected to a less stringent vetting because, unlike Campbell, he was given no power to give orders to civil servants. The lower clearance meant he did not have access to secret documents or attend Cabinet meetings and other sensitive sessions.

Regardless of the vetting, it was well known in 2007 when Cameron, then opposition leader, first hired Coulson that he had recently resigned as editor of News of the World following the conviction of two employees for phone hacking.

The hacking scandal has received feverish attention since July 4 when it was revealed that someone at News of the World had hacked the phone of 13-year-old murder victim Milly Dowler at a time when police were still searching for her.

The temperature cooled a bit on Thursday, with Parliament closed for the first day of its summer recess, but the investigation appeared to be intensifying.

London’s Metropolitan Police said Wednesday that it was assigning 15 more officers to help the 45 already involved in the investigation.

News Corp., meanwhile, said it had instructed the law firm of Harbottle and Lewis to answer police questions about emails and other documents from an internal investigation at News of the World in 2007. That inquiry said found no evidence that Coulson was aware of hacking by reporter Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire. Both were sentenced to prison for hacking into phones of the royal household.

Harbottle and Lewis also said there was no evidence of wider criminality at the newspaper.

The file of emails and document was turned over to police in June.

Ken MacDonald, the former director of public prosecutions, reviewed emails from that file which related to payments to police. He had been hired to advise the News Corp. board

On Tuesday, MacDonald told a parliamentary committee that it took no more than five minutes to read the material. “I cannot imagine anyone looking at that file and not seeing evidence of crime on its face,” MacDonald said.

“I have to tell you that the material that I saw was so blindingly obvious, that anyone trying to argue it should not have been given to the police would have been a difficult task,” MacDonald said.

Since the Milly Dowler hacking was reported, London’s police chief and the head of the antiterrorist operation have resigned; so have Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International, which runs Murdoch’s British papers, and Les Hinton, a longtime associate of Murdoch who formerly headed News International; the News of the World was shut down, leaving 200 employees looking for work; and the BSkyB bid was shelved.