Judge Opens Inquiry into Britain's Hacking Scandal

July 28, 2011 - 10:44 AM

Britain Phone Hacking

Lord Justice Leveson speaks during the first formal session of his phone hacking inquiry in London, Thursday July 28, 2011. Justice Brian Leveson said he has the legal power to demand evidence from witnesses - and plans to use it

LONDON (AP) — A senior judge on Thursday opened an inquiry into Britain's phone-hacking scandal that will start by looking at whether the country needs tougher media regulation, and will have the power to force witnesses to give evidence.

Justice Brian Leveson said he has the legal power to demand statements and documents from witnesses — and plans to use it "as soon as possible."

Leveson's inquiry was announced earlier this month by Prime Minister David Cameron in the wake of a scandal over illegal eavesdropping that has closed down the 168-year-old News of the World tabloid and shaken Rupert Murdoch's global media empire.

Leveson's seven-member panel includes a veteran newspaper reporter, a former police chief, a civil liberties activist and a broadcast journalist. They held their first formal meeting Thursday and will begin public hearings in September.

The panel is due to issue a report within a year. Leveson said he would strive to meet that deadline, but "not at all costs."

A second part of the inquiry will examine specific allegations of wrongdoing at the now-shuttered News of the World, but can't start until the criminal investigation by police is finished — which could be years away.

Leveson said the inquiry would examine "the culture, practices and ethics of the press."

"In the first instance the inquiry will focus primarily on the relationship between the press and public and the related issues of press regulation," he said.

Later, it will look at relations among the press, police and politicians.

Leveson said he would soon send out letters summoning evidence and witnesses, who may include journalists, news executives, police and politicians.

But he said he hoped people would participate willingly to help root out wrongdoing.

"It may be tempting for a number of people to close ranks and suggest that the problem is or was local to a group of journalists then operating at the News of the World, but I would encourage all to take a wider view of the public good and help me grapple with the width and depth of the problem," he said.

The inquiry will try to get to grips with a scandal that continues to shake Britain's police, political and media establishment. It already has led to the resignations of London's police chief and two senior executives of Murdoch's News Corp.

On Thursday, the board of British Sky Broadcasting has met, under pressure to reconsider the future of its chairman James Murdoch, Rupert's son.

The board meeting is the first since News Corp. abandoned a takeover bid for BSkyB because of the scandal at the British Sunday tabloid News of the World.

British newspapers fall within James Murdoch's responsibilities as CEO and chairman of the International division of News Corp.

The meeting is primarily held to sign the full year earnings report of BSkyB, which is 39 percent owned by News Corp. But analysts say the board members are likely to discuss James Murdoch's future with the company and the possibility of a special dividend.