London – British police arrested a former editor of The News of the World tabloid on Friday who had also been a senior aide to Prime Minister David Cameron, deepening the crisis swirling around Rupert Murdoch’s news empire over allegations of phone hacking and corruption.
Struggling to contain the biggest scandal since he took office more than a year ago, Mr. Cameron announced two separate inquiries into the revelations, saying “no stone will be left unturned.”
In a statement, Scotland Yard said Andy Coulson, Mr. Cameron’s former director of communications, had been interviewed at a police station in south London and was “currently in custody.”
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While his arrest had been expected, it brought a new dimension to the scandal, turning it from one of claim and counter-claim to a question of criminal charges.
A police statement said the former editor had been arrested “on suspicion of conspiring to intercept communications” and “on suspicion of corruption allegations.” It said he had been interviewed by officers investigating illegal payments to corrupt police officers and phone hacking.
The police move came in tandem with a desperate scramble by Mr. Cameron to contain fallout from the scandal and switch public attention to measures being taken to investigate it. But the arrest was certain to draw renewed taunts by Mr. Cameron’s critics that he showed flawed judgment in hiring Mr. Coulson in 2007. In the past, the prime minister has always vouched for Mr. Coulson’s integrity and said he believed Mr. Coulson’s assurances that he had done nothing wrong.
The developments followed a decision by Rupert Murdoch’s family on Thursday to close The News of the World — the tabloid newspaper at the center of the deepening scandal over illicit payments to corrupt police officers and the hacking of cellphones belonging to victims of crime and terrorism and possibly families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The decision seemed to be a calculated move to help protect Mr. Murdoch’s proposed $12 billion takeover of the pay-television company British Sky Broadcasting. Mr. Murdoch already owns a controlling 39.1 percent stake in it; the deal would allow him to own it outright.
Members of the British public had until Friday to make their views known to the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, who is to rule on the takeover. News reports said so many thousands of people had lodged objections that it could take months to sift through them. Before the phone-hacking crisis exploded this week, Mr. Hunt had been widely expected to approve the deal, possibly this week. But he indicated on Friday that a decision would take longer.
In a statement, his office said that “given the volume of responses,” it would “take some time” to make a ruling. Mr. Hunt “will also consider all relevant factors” including the impact of the closure of The News of the World, the statement said.
The repercussions from the crisis also seemed to be spreading to the question of media regulation.
At a hastily-convened news conference to unveil his plans for inquiries, Mr. Cameron also proposed an extraordinary tightening of regulations on the behavior of the free-wheeling British press, which prides itself on investigative prowess far beyond the tabloid titillation with which some of its titles are associated.
“I believe we need a new system entirely,” Mr. Cameron declared, saying the current self-regulation of the press by a body called the Press Complaints Commission has “failed.” The scandal has shaken the intertwined worlds of press and politics, laid bare the cozy ties between British leaders and Mr. Murdoch and raised questions about the future of two once high-flying newspaper executives — Mr. Coulson and Rebekah Brooks, the current chief executive of Mr. Murdoch’s newspaper operations in Britain who herself had been editor of The News of the World.
At Friday’s news conference, Mr. Cameron said that, in addition to separate police investigations into payments allegedly made by newspapers to corrupt officers, he intended to convene two inquiries — one led by a judge to interview witnesses under oath and investigate how the phone-hacking scandal took root and how an earlier police inquiry in 2006 “failed so abysmally” and a second into “the culture and ethics” of the British press.
“People want clarity, real clarity about how this came to pass,” he said. “I want to deal with it.” But he also repeated that the police investigation currently under way would have to be concluded before a judge could begin taking his own evidence. He said an inquiry into the workings of the press could begin this summer.
“It will be for the inquiry to recommend what the system should look like,” he said. “But my starting presumption is that it should be truly independent — independent of the press so that the public will know that newspapers will never again be solely responsible for policing themselves.”
He described the crisis as a “cathartic moment” to create a new system of press regulation that would preserve editorial freedom but create “a free press that is also clean and trustworthy.”
Earlier on Friday, the opposition Labour leader, Ed Miliband, again urged Mr. Cameron to acknowledge mistakes in his relationship with Mr. Coulson.
“Putting it right for the prime minister means starting by admitting the appalling error of judgment he made in hiring Andy Coulson, apologizing for bringing him in to the center of the government machine, coming clean about what conversations he had with Andy Coulson, before and after his appointment, about phone hacking,” Mr. Miliband said.
At his news conference, Mr. Cameron said the decision to hire Mr. Coulson was “mine and mine alone and I take full responsibility for it.” But in response to a question, he declined to apologize for his actions.
He was also asked about Ms. Brooks, who was editor of The News of the World at the time of phone hacking in 2002, who has said she knew nothing about the matter. Despite repeated calls for her resignation, she has retained the confidence of the Murdoch family.
Mr. Miliband has called for her resignation and has urged Mr. Cameron to do the same.
The prime minister said on Friday that it was not his job to make such determinations, but there had been reports that Ms. Brooks had offered to resign. “In this situation I would have taken it,” he said.
The remark seemed to be closest he has come to supporting the ouster of Ms. Brooks, reportedly a personal friend, and thus implicitly criticizing the Murdoch family for defending her.
The scandal has exposed a web of relationships between the Murdochs’ empire on the one hand and the police and politicians on the other. And it poses new challenges for Mr. Murdoch, a media tycoon who has at times seemed to hold much of Britain’s political establishment in thrall, cultivating connections to both Labour and Conservative governments and using the prospect of his support — or its withdrawal — to help drive his political agenda.
In a statement of strikingly self-critical apology, Mr. Murdoch’s son and heir apparent, James Murdoch, admitted that News International, the company’s British subsidiary, had “failed to get to the bottom of repeated wrongdoings that occurred without conscience or legitimate purpose.” The company’s repeated assertions that the scandal was “confined to one reporter,” had proven untrue, he said, “and those who acted wrongly will have to face the consequences.”
According to another person familiar with the possible charges against Mr. Coulson, e-mails recently turned over to the police from The News of the World linked him and half a dozen other people, including high-ranking editors, to payments to the police “in the six figures.”
The payments were said to be not just for news tips, a standard tabloid practice despite its illegality, but also for substantial information, including confidential documents held by the police. Not only would any arrests be a blow to News International, the News Corporation’s British subsidiary, but the company also faces the awkward prospect that any current or former News of the World employee facing prison might be tempted to argue, with specific examples, that wrongdoing was widespread at the paper.
A person close to Mr. Murdoch said the closure of The News of the World gives him an excuse to do something he had planned to do anyway: turn his flagship Sun tabloid into a seven-day operation, preserving his lucrative share in the Sunday newspaper market while decontaminating the brand by removing its association with The News of the World.
Critics of Mr. Murdoch said the move was more expedient than remorseful. “This seems like a cynical rebranding exercise,” said Jeremy Reed, a lawyer for several public figures who have sued The News of the World over allegations that the paper had hacked into, or intercepted, their cellphone messages.
Accusations of illegal behavior at The News of the World have swirled for some time at no obvious cost to the newspaper, whose salacious focus on frothy sex scandals and show-business gossip helps it sell some 2.7 million copies every Sunday. But public revulsion spilled over this week at new allegations — separate from those linked to Mr. Coulson — that the paper hacked into the phones of a 13-year-old murder victim, Milly Dowler, the families of slain soldiers and victims of the 2005 subway bombings.
The wave of indignation, expressed also by members of Parliament in an extraordinary session in the House of Commons on Wednesday, in turn helped scare off advertisers, who began hastily pulling their business.
This article, “British PM Orders Two Inquiries Into Murdoch Hacking Scandal,”originally appeared in The New York Times.
Sarah Lyall reported from London and Alan Cowell from Paris. Reporting was contributed by Jo Becker, Julia Werdigier and Ravi Somaiya from London, Jeremy Peters, Brian Stelter and Tim Arango from New York.