Even more Murdoch links with culture committee chair and Met chief exposed

More links between the Murdoch empire and Met Police commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson and culture committee chair John Whittingdale emerged this morning.

More links between the Murdoch empire and Met Police commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson and culture, media and sport select committee chair John Whittingdale have emerged this morning, while on the political front, both Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband have called for Rupert Murdoch’s media empire to be cut back.

The Sunday Times (£) reveals Met chief Sir Paul received a £12,000 “freebie” at a luxury ‘health farm spa’ whose PR man at the time was Neil Wallis, one time News of the World hack and News International executive arrested last week in the police investigation into phone hacking.

The ST reports (£):

In a statement to The Sunday Times last night after the newspaper challenged the commissioner about his free stay at the hotel, the Met said the accommodation and other costs for Stephenson, 57, and his wife, were covered by the hotel.

“Following his operations, the commissioner stayed with his wife at Champneys Medical from Monday to Friday over a period of five weeks earlier this year where he underwent an extensive programme of hydro- and physiotherapy. This enabled him to return to work six weeks earlier than anticipated.

“As with many officers, the Met paid the intensive physiotherapy costs. The accommodation and meals were arranged and provided by Stephen Purdew, MD of Champneys, a personal family friend.”

The cost of a mid-range premier room at Champneys is up to £598 a night for two.

Metropolitan Police Authority member Jennette Arnold, chair of the London assembly, told the ST she was “flabbergasted”, adding (£):

“Yesterday the confidence was low, now my confidence in him is completely shattered.”

As Left Foot Forward reported last week, Wallis worked as a PR consultant for Scotland Yard, regularly dining with Sir Paul and Assistant Commissioner John Yates. He earned £1,000 a day for two days a month from October 2009 to September 2010 – a total of £24,000 of taxpayers’ money. Sir Paul will be grilled by the home affairs select committee on Tuesday at midday.

Today’s Independent on Sunday, meanwhile, exposes culture committee chair John Whittingdale’s “secret links to Murdoch”, revealing his friendships with Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth and senior News Corp. executive Les Hinton, who resigned yesterday. Whittindale is the MP among Elisabeth’s 386 Facebook friends, and the only MP among Hinton’s 93.

The IoS reports:

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…

“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.

As Left Foot Forward reported earlier this month, shadowy Murdoch empire figures had previously been warned MPs off probing the phone hacking scandal “because there could be consequences”, while Mr Whittingdale had enjoyed a donation of £3,000 from News Internationl to the cricket club he is vice-chairman of.

Looking ahead, the IoS adds:

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.”

Politically, Ed Miliband continues to make the running, telling the Observer Rupert Murdoch’s empire must be dismantled, saying he has too much power in the UK and calling for tough new media ownership rules.

He said:

“I think that we’ve got to look at the situation whereby one person can own more than 20% of the newspaper market, the Sky platform and Sky News… I think it’s unhealthy because that amount of power in one person’s hands has clearly led to abuses of power within his organisation.

“If you want to minimise the abuses of power then that kind of concentration of power is frankly quite dangerous.”

The report adds:

His latest intervention, as a poll on Saturday night showed his personal rating up seven points on a month ago, comes ahead of what promises to be a dramatic appearance by Rupert Murdoch, his son James, the chief executive of News Corporation Europe and Asia, and Brooks before the Commons culture, media and sport committee.

Committee members preparing to grill the trio are to be given legal advice on the morning of the hearing on how far they can push the News Corp boss and his son for answers. The committee’s chairman, the Tory MP John Whittingdale, has asked for details of their lines of questioning to avoid duplication…

Further pressure was piled on Murdoch after the Liberal Democrats wrote to the media regulator, Ofcom, urging it to launch an investigation that could see his holding company, News Corp, forced to sell its stake in satellite broadcaster BSkyB. The Broadcasting Act places a duty on the regulator to consider “any relevant conduct of those who manage and control such a licence”.

Although News Corp, whose News International subsidiary owned the News of the World, has only a minority 39% share in BSkyB, the Lib Dems argue the company is “strongly placed materially to influence the policy and strategic direction of BSkyB”, suggesting the regulator is duty bound to investigate.

Speaking on the Andrew Marr show this morning, Nick Clegg joined Mr Miliband in calling for reform of newspaper ownership. He claimed “a lot of good” could come out of the scandal if it led to reform of newspaper ownership and regulation, adding that, though the public were already cynical about politicians and journalists, it would be “much more serious” if they were losing confidence in the police.

Left Foot Forward will have more on the phone hacking story throughout the next week, including the stratospherically anticipated select committee appearances this Tuesday. Stay tuned…

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