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British police arrest 6 in phone hacking scandal

Rebekah Brooks, who headed Rupert Murdoch's British newspapers, is reportedly among those held. The charges suggest the scope of the inquiry has been expanded.

March 13, 2012|By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times
  • Rebekah Brooks, former head of News International, is said to be among the six people arrested in Britain on suspicion of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, a more serious charge than phone hacking.
Rebekah Brooks, former head of News International, is said to be among the… (Leon Neal/ AFP/Getty Images )

Reporting from London — Police investigating Britain's phone hacking scandal swooped down on a number of homes in an early-morning raid Tuesday and arrested six people, including a woman widely identified as Rebekah Brooks, the former head of Rupert Murdoch's British newspapers.

Scotland Yard said five men and the woman were arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, a more serious charge than phone hacking. That suggests that the authorities' probe of the scandal has broadened to include an investigation of a possible coverup by employees and executives at Murdoch-owned News International.

Brooks, 43, headed the company before resigning in disgrace in July after it emerged that one of its publications, the weekly News of the World, had illegally accessed the voicemail messages on the cellphone of a kidnapped teenager who was later found slain in 2002. Brooks was the tabloid's editor at the time but has denied any knowledge of what happened.

In line with official policy, Scotland Yard declined to confirm whether Brooks was among those arrested. But British media, citing unnamed sources, identified her and her husband, Charlie, as among the six taken into custody, and the police description of two of the suspects broadly matched their profiles.

Brooks, once one of Britain's most powerful women but now among its most reviled, was arrested in July on suspicion of phone hacking but released on bail. At that time, she was allowed to turn herself in by appointment at a local police station.

By contrast, the latest arrests were carried out by detectives who descended on five residences and one business in surprise raids between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. Tuesday in London and three neighboring counties, including Oxfordshire, where the Brookses live.

Besides questioning the suspects, police said they were conducting searches as part of their investigation. Five of the six suspects were later released on bail, police said, and are expected to return for further questioning next month.

Authorities suspect that the News of the World illegally tapped into the cellphones of hundreds of people in its ravenous hunger for scoops. Murdoch's media empire has already shelled out millions of dollars to settle lawsuits brought against it by hacking victims whose ranks include high-profile politicians, movie stars and professional athletes.

In addition, the News of the World — just one of a raft of aggressive, sensation-seeking and often politically powerful tabloids in this country — is believed to have illegally accessed the phones of families of fallen soldiers and murder victims, and hired private detectives to conduct surveillance on the paper's perceived enemies.

To contain the fallout from the scandal, Murdoch summarily shut down the publication in July. But allegations of shady news gathering practices have spread to the News of the World's sister tabloid, the Sun, Britain's bestselling daily paper.

Critics allege that executives at News International have tried to thwart investigators by lying and destroying documents and company emails.

Murdoch insists that his giant News Corp., the parent company, is fully cooperating with the police. The corporation has set up a committee to help with the investigation, but Scotland Yard said that Tuesday's arrests did not result from information passed to it from the panel.

The scandal has reached into the highest echelons of government. Brooks and her husband are personal friends of Prime Minister David Cameron, who this month described Charlie Brooks, a racehorse trainer, as someone he has known since childhood.

In July, a security guard found a laptop computer and various documents that had been stuffed into a garbage bag and tossed into a trash can at the London apartment building where the Brookses maintained a flat. The guard turned the items over to police. Charlie Brooks subsequently tried to reclaim them, saying they had been tossed out mistakenly as the result of a mix-up with an associate.

henry.chu@latimes.com

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