Revealed: Senior MP's secret links to Murdoch

Culture chairman, who will this week quiz media moguls, is friends with Les Hinton and Elisabeth Murdoch

Mary Dejevsky,Brian Brady,Andy McCorkell
Sunday 17 July 2011 00:00 BST

The MP who will lead the attack on Rebekah Brooks and Rupert and James Murdoch this week over their roles in the phone-hacking scandal has close links with the media empire, it is revealed today.

John Whittingdale, the Conservative chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport committee, admitted he was an old friend of Mr Murdoch's close aide, Les Hinton, and had been for dinner with Ms Brooks.

The Independent on Sunday has also learnt that Mr Murdoch's daughter Elisabeth, seen as the future saviour of the company, has also met Mr Whittingdale a number of times. Among her 386 "friends" on Facebook, the only MP she lists is Mr Whittingdale. He is also the only MP among 93 Facebook "friends" of Mr Hinton.

It is also understood that the MP for Maldon was invited to Mr Hinton's wedding reception in 2009 but declined to accept in light of the committee's ongoing investigation into hacking.

Mr Hinton resigned as chief executive of Mr Murdoch's Dow Jones company on Friday.

While there is no suggestion of impropriety on the part of the Tory MP – an aide to Margaret Thatcher when she was Prime Minister – the disclosure will fuel the sense that all the key players in the scandal are inextricably linked as members of the Establishment.

It follows revelations that senior police officers, including Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, had dinner with senior executives from News International.

"These are people who I've met," Mr Whittingdale said last night. "I've only met Elisabeth Murdoch a couple of times. Les, I've known for about 10 years, and I've been for dinner once or twice with Rebekah. I wouldn't say they are close friends but you can't do the job I've done for six years without having them as acquaintances. It doesn't suggest close intimacy."

It is understood that the committee came under pressure from Conservative Central Office before last year's election over its investigation of the phone-hacking scandal, suggesting that the MPs soft-pedalled on the issue. But a committee source insisted that Mr Whittingdale had been "completely decent and honest" in his approach to their investigation.

The source suggested that Mr Whittingdale would give the Murdochs and Ms Brooks a hard time on Tuesday, adding: "He is not a pugnacious person but has been very frustrated at the way the committee has been treated by News International."

Mr Whittingdale in 2007 secured £3,000 for his local cricket club after approaching Sky – part-owned by Mr Murdoch – for help with funds to provide nets and equipment for coaching local youngsters. The MP, who is a vice-president of Maldon Cricket Club, said Sky supported several sporting groups around the country.

The hearing on Tuesday has been described as the most important select committee session in the history of Parliament.

Committee sources are furious at the suggestion that Ms Brooks will try to close down questioning of her knowledge of hacking while she was News of the World editor by saying she cannot prejudice an ongoing police investigation.

A source said: "If she tries to close down the questioning, the whole world will be watching."

It is understood that the committee has legal advice that as Ms Brooks, and the Murdochs, have not been arrested by officers investigating hacking, they must reveal, under oath, what they knew.

Difficulties emerged in Downing Street's attempt to be open about David Cameron's social and business meetings when inconsistencies came to light in his office's list, published on Friday, of his meetings with senior News International journalists.

The list omitted, for example, Ms Brooks's attendance at Mr Cameron's birthday party in October. "That is a total oversight," said a No 10 source. "It is not a cover up. A very good point. These things get forgotten in the fog of war. When the list is published officially we will include it."

Mr Cameron and Ms Brooks, whose Oxfordshire houses are three miles apart, also had a pre-arranged meeting at a point to point, at Heythrop, on 23 January this year, which was not included in the list.

Two former senior News of the World editors wanted for questioning by police

Detectives investigating phone-hacking allegations at the News of the World are keen to question two former senior journalists at the newspaper. Scotland Yard officers have been told the two, former executive editor Alex Marunchak and deputy news editor Greg Miskiw, were both key figures linked to the use of private investigators to access confidential information.

Rebekah Brooks appointed Mr Miskiw as the News of the World's assistant editor in charge of news, and it was he who employed Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator at the heart of the phone-hacking scandal.

Last month Mr Miskiw's former girlfriend Terenia Taras was arrested and questioned for several hours by Metropolitan Police officers in West Yorkshire. She has been bailed to return to a police station in the autumn.

After examining documents taken from Mulcaire's home, police are anxious to question Mr Miskiw, who is living in Florida. His also featured in documents obtained by police following a raid on the Hampshire home of private detective Steve Whittamore, who was used by a large number of journalists to obtain information about public figures. Whittamore was later convicted under the Data Protection Act in 2005 at Blackfriars Crown Court of obtaining and disclosing information after passing information obtained from the police national database to customers.

Whittamore's network was investigated and broken up by the Information Commissioner, who discovered he was accessing sensitive information from the Police National Computer, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority, British Telecom and a number of mobile phone companies. The investigation, called Operation Motorman, showed 23 journalists from the News of the World hired Whittamore more than 200 times. The names include Rebekah Brooks, who allegedly commissioned access to confidential data from a mobile phone company.

Mr Miskiw is known to be a close friend of Mr Marunchak, a former crime reporter and senior executive at the NOTW. The two reportedly had mutual business arrangements including the importation of vodka from Ukraine. Mr Marunchak, who left the newspaper in 2006, claims to have been appointed as a special adviser to Ukraine's UK embassy in 1999.

Mr Marunchak is said to be a friend of a private investigator called Jonathan Rees who was employed by the NOTW to help provide reporters with illegally obtained confidential information. Rees was later jailed for falsely planting cocaine in an innocent woman's car but was re-employed by the NOTW's editor Andy Coulson after he served his sentence.

Detectives also suspected Rees of bribing corrupt officers to supply information to the media. A surveillance operation was carried out on Rees including a bug being placed in his office. It was later revealed that among the hours of taped conversations were many between Mr Marunchak and Rees discussing transactions involving thousands of pounds for work carried out for the newspaper.

Police later discovered that NOTW reporters were carrying out surveillance on the senior officer investigating a murder. Concerned that this might be an effort to pervert the course of justice, senior officers confronted Rebekah Brooks at Scotland Yard about Mr Marunchak's relationship with Rees. It is understood that Ms Brooks defended Mr Marunchak strongly and later said the surveillance was carried out because the officer was suspected of having an affair.

Jonathan Owen

What the papers say

Rebekah Brooks intervened to persuade David Cameron to make the ex-News of the World editor, Andy Coulson, his spin-doctor, a report in the Mail on Sunday claimed last night.

The disgraced former News International boss allegedly urged the Prime Minister to scrap plans to give the job to a senior BBC journalist. Mr Cameron was told it should go to someone who was "acceptable" to News International.

The allegation increases pressure on Mr Cameron over his close links to Brooks and the Murdoch empire.

Ed Miliband attempted to drive home his advantage in the war of words over the hacking scandal, telling The Observer that Rupert Murdoch's UK media empire must be broken up. The Labour leader called for a cross-party agreement on new media ownership laws that would cut Murdoch's current market share, arguing that he has "too much power over British public life".

In an exclusive interview, Miliband says NI's decision to abandon its BSkyB bid, the resignation of Brooks and the closure of the NOTW weren't enough to restore trust.

The Sunday Telegraph claimed NI executives including Rupert Murdoch's son James were being investigated over a cover-up of "industrial scale" hacking.

The Metropolitan Police reportedly want to know why a series of emails dating back to 2006 were only made available to detectives in January, prompting the current inquiry that has caused chaos at the highest levels of the company.

"News International appears to have covered up this scandal," a senior Scotland Yard officer reportedly told the paper. "That is potentially a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice."

NI has placed a second apologetic ad in today's newspapers, including The IoS. This also lays out plans to make up for the damage caused by the NOTW's behaviour. It promises action to prevent a repeat of the problems, a compensation scheme and a new independent Manage-ment & Standards Committee.

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