London – Britain’s top police official resigned on Sunday, the latest casualty of the phone-hacking scandal engulfing British public life, just hours after Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of Rupert Murdoch’s News International, was arrested on suspicion of illegally intercepting phone calls and bribing the police.
The official, Sir Paul Stephenson, commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service, commonly known as the Met or Scotland Yard, said that he had decided to step down because “the ongoing speculation and accusations relating to the Met’s links with News International at a senior level” had made it difficult for him to do his job.
But he said that he had done nothing wrong and that he would not “lose sleep over my personal integrity.” He also said that because he had not been involved in the original phone-hacking investigation, he had had no idea that Neil Wallis, a former News of the Worlddeputy editor who had become a public-relations consultant for the police after leaving the paper, was himself suspected of phone hacking.
Mr. Wallis, 60, was arrested last Thursday.
The commissioner’s resignation came as the London political establishment was still digesting the stunning news about the arrest of Ms. Brooks — who apparently was surprised herself. A consummate networker who has always been assiduously courted by politicians and whose friends include Prime Minister David Cameron, Ms. Brooks, 43, is the 10th and by far the most powerful person to be arrested so far in the phone-hacking scandal.
Her arrest is bound to be particularly wounding to Mr. Murdoch, who, asked early last week to identify his chief priority in the affair, pointed to Ms. Brooks and said, “This one.”
Ms. Brooks has not yet been formally charged, but it is significant that she is being questioned in connection with two separate investigations. One, called Operation Weeting, is examining allegations of widespread phone hacking at the News of the World, the tabloid at the center of the scandal, where Ms. Brooks was editor from 2000 to 2003. The other is Operation Elveden, which is looking into more serious charges that News International editors paid police officers for information.
Ms. Brooks has always maintained that she was unaware of wrongdoing at The News of the World, which was summarily closed by Mr. Murdoch a week ago in an unsuccessful damage-control exercise. But the tide rose against her, and on Friday she resigned, saying in a written statement that her presence was “detracting attention” from the company.
The arrest was a shock to the News Corporation, the parent company of News International, and the other properties in Mr. Murdoch’s media empire, which is reeling from the traumas of last week: the forced withdrawal of its cherished $12 billion takeover bid for British Sky Broadcasting and the resignations not only of Ms. Brooks but also of Les Hinton, a longtime Murdoch ally and friend who was the chairman of Dow Jones and the publisher of The Wall Street Journal.
Speaking of Ms. Brooks, an official at News International said: “When she resigned on Friday, we were not aware that she would be arrested by the police.” Another person briefed on the News Corporation’s plans said that on Friday, when the company was preparing to announce her exit and the departure in New York of Mr. Hinton, the possibility of her arrest was not discussed.
Until Ms. Brooks arrived at a London police station by prearranged appointment on Sunday, she believed she would merely be helping the police as a witness, her spokesman said.
“She was very surprised, I think, to then be arrested,” said the spokesman, David Wilson, chairman of the Bell Pottinger public relations firm. Mr. Wilson said it all happened so quickly that both her lawyer and he were brought in to handle her case over the weekend.
Ms. Brooks was arrested “under caution,” he said, meaning that she was read her rights and treated as a suspect. “She maintains her innocence, absolutely,” he said. She was released on bail after about 12 hours in police custody, news services reported.
For months, Ms. Brooks had been willing to talk to the police but had been rebuffed, Mr. Wilson said. “As recently as last week, she was told she wasn’t required to do so and she wasn’t on their radar.”
No formal charges have yet been brought against Ms. Brooks, or indeed against any of the others — mostly former editors and reporters at The News of the World — arrested in the phone-hacking case so far. These include Andy Coulson, who resigned as the paper’s editor in in 2007, was then hired by the Conservative Party, and most recently worked as the chief spokesman for Mr. Cameron’s government. Under British law, suspects can be detained 24 to 36 hours without being charged.
Sir Paul, who took over the top police job in 2009, stepped down in large part because of a furor over his contacts with News International officials. The New York Times reported over the weekend that he met for meals 18 times with News International executives and editors during the phone-hacking investigation, and that other top other police officials had had similar meetings.
These included meeting Mr. Wallis eight times while he was still working at The News of the World. Both Theresa May, the home secretary, and Boris Johnson, the London mayor, said they were angry that he had not disclosed these meetings earlier.
In his statement, Sir Paul explained that he had withheld information about his contacts with Mr. Wallis, even after Mr. Wallis became a phone-hacking suspect, because he “did not want to compromise the prime minister in any way by revealing or discussing a potential suspect who clearly had a close relationship with Mr. Coulson” — Mr. Cameron’s friend and former employee.
“Unlike Mr. Coulson, Mr. Wallis had not resigned from News of the World or, to the best of my knowledge, been in any way associated with the original phone-hacking investigation,” Sir Paul said, in what appeared to be a criticism of the prime minister.
Indeed, Mr. Cameron is in the awkward position of counting two of the arrested parties — Mr. Coulson and Ms. Brooks — as personal friends. As leader of the opposition, he attended Ms. Brooks’s wedding in 2009 (Rupert Murdoch and Gordon Brown, then the prime minister, of the Labour Party, were also guests).
Mr. Cameron was friendly enough with Ms. Brooks to socialize with her twice in December, according to records released by Downing Street last Friday. Once was at a cozy family dinner at her country house over the Christmas holiday; James Murdoch, Mr. Murdoch’s son and the head of News Corporation’s European and Asian divisions, was also present.
The meetings took place while Mr. Cameron’s government was considering, favorably, the News Corporation’s bid to take over the part of BskyB that it did not already own.
Oddly enough, both Sir Paul and Ms. Brooks were due to give testimony on Tuesday to different Parliamentary committees looking into phone hacking. Keith Vaz, the chairman of the home affairs committee, where Sir Paul was due to be questioned, said that there was no reason the session should not still proceed.
But Ms. Brooks’s appearance, at the committee on culture, media and sport, is now in doubt. Before her arrest, she had warned that because of the investigation, she might be limited in what she could say. Now, it is unclear whether she will come at all.
Although they will still get to question her former bosses, Rupert and James Murdoch, committee members seem disappointed at the prospect of losing Ms. Brooks. Some even said that they wondered if the timing of the arrest was intended to ensure that she was unavailable to answer their questions.
“Being of a suspicious mind, I do find it odd that they should arrest her now by appointment,” said Chris Bryant, a Labour member of the committee, who suspects his phone was hacked by The News of the World. He said that Ms. Brooks’s arrest brings the scandal closer to the top.
“The water is now lapping around the ankles of the Murdoch family,” he said.