- Associated Press - Monday, November 14, 2011

LONDON — The press likes to cast itself as society’s guardian. On Monday, the judge leading the investigation into Britain’s deepening phone hacking scandal vowed to find an answer to the question: Who guards the guardians?

For years, the British media’s answer has been that it mainly looks after itself. But following explosive allegations of pervasive criminality at Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid, Lord Justice Brian Leveson suggested it was time for a change.

“Guarding the guardians is not an optional add-on,” he said.

Britain’s phone hacking inquiry was set up by Prime Minister David Cameron shortly after the scandal boiled over in July, pulling the lid off illegal spying at the nation’s best-selling Sunday newspaper and exposing police corruption.

It’s one of several investigations spurred by public anger over unethical practices at the now defunct paper. The long-running scandal has threatened Murdoch’s global media empire, which includes the Wall Street Journal and dozens of other properties.

News Corp. executive James Murdoch (left) is driven away from a drive-in entrance at Portcullis House after his second appearance before British parliamentarians investigating the country's phone hacking scandal in London, on Nov. 10, 2011. (Associated Press)
News Corp. executive James Murdoch (left) is driven away from a drive-in ... more >

Parallel inquiries launched by police, prosecutors and parliamentarians have called Murdoch to Britain for dramatic testimony before lawmakers, led to more than a dozen arrests and the resignation of several top-ranking Murdoch executives. The resignations included The Wall Street Journal publisher Les Hinton, and Rebekah Brooks, who was at the helm of News of the World’s publisher, News International.

The first part of Leveson’s inquiry seeks to go beyond assigning blame to individual journalists or newspapers to evaluate the media’s wider role. Among the questions on his agenda: Is the press above the law? Is it too close to police and politicians?

Although the News of the World has few defenders, editors and broadcast bosses have publicly voiced concern that recommendations from any inquiry could make Britain’s press less aggressive — and less free. Few if any want more government regulation — especially since Britain’s press already labors under strict libel laws and contentious new privacy rules.

While inquiry counsel Robert Jay said that the importance of a free press was “almost self-evident,” he warned that the media may not necessarily like the solutions the inquiry finds for tricky ethical issues.

“These solutions will not necessarily have been the solutions which the press themselves would have devised,” he said.

Leveson said he hoped to have the first part of his inquiry wrapped up by the end of 2012.

He’s expected to recommend either scrapping or radically reforming the Press Complaints Commission, the self-regulatory body whose failure to get to grips with the hacking scandal has been roundly criticized. The scope of his inquiry’s recommendations will hinge in part on whether illegal behavior is found to have been limited largely to the News of the World or whether it was practiced more widely.

There seemed to be plenty of evidence at Monday’s hearing that shady practices were widespread.

Jay told the inquiry — whose proceedings were broadcast live over the Internet — that it appeared that illegal interception of voicemails went beyond the News of the World. He said that the inquiry had seen the names of no fewer than 28 News International employees in the notes kept by Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator which the News of the World paid to illegally eavesdrop on its victims.

The words “The Sun” — a possible reference to the News of the World’s sister-title — also cropped up in Mulcaire’s notes, Jay said. So, too, did a name linked to the Daily Mirror, the Sun’s left-wing rival, which is published by Trinity Mirror PLC.

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