Sunday, 17 July 2011

John Whittingdale’s Facebook friends include Elisabeth Murdoch and Les Hinton

By Jane Merrick, Brian Brady, James Hanning and Andy McCorkell of The Independent

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

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 in Heythrop on 23rd January this year, which was not included in the list.