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Rupert Murdoch faces U.S. heat on phone hacking

By Peter Wilkinson, CNN
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu February 16, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • UK lawyer for alleged victims of phone-hacking flying to U.S. within weeks to meet lawyers
  • Mark Lewis declined to comment on reports he planned to sue Murdoch
  • UK police are investigating hacking and corruption involving public officials
  • Officers arrested five journalists at The Sun over allegations of payments to police

London (CNN) -- The British lawyer for alleged victims of phone-hacking by newspapers said Monday he is flying to the United States within weeks to meet lawyers amid reports he may take legal action against media magnate Rupert Murdoch.

Mark Lewis, who is representing dozens of individuals who say their phones were hacked by Murdoch's UK titles, confirmed to CNN he would meet lawyers, but declined to comment on the reports he planned to sue Murdoch.

Lewis said the purpose of his planned visit was "as always to represent my clients properly."

His clients include the family of Milly Dowler, a missing teenager whose voice mail was allegedly hacked by News of The World before she was found murdered. Public outrage over the allegations led News International to shut down the tabloid in July.

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Police in London are investigating the hacking claims as well as suspected corruption involving public officials.

As part of this investigation, officers on Saturday arrested five senior journalists at Murdoch's top-selling tabloid The Sun over allegations of improper payments to police and officials. A police officer, an employee of the Ministry of Defence and a member of the armed forces were also detained.

Last year Lewis told CNN he was "looking to pursue legal action on the basis of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in the United States, whereby a holding company can be liable for practices outside the jurisdiction where the offence is said to have taken place."

"Proceedings will be issued in the U.S. where we will seek information from the company's directors about those issues and about corporate governance."

The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, enacted in 1977, makes it illegal for a U.S. person or company to pay foreign officials to obtain or retain business.

Potential liability flows from journalists at News of the World to its parent, News International, and to that company's parent, News Corp., which is a publicly held company in the United States, and runs Fox News.

Meanwhile, Murdoch is flying to London this week in what News International described as a scheduled visit. But his trip comes days after he issued a personal assurance to one of his executives to continue to own and publish The Sun newspaper, according to an internal staff memo sent by News International Chief Executive Tom Mockridge.

Mockridge said he was "very saddened" by the arrests of deputy editor Geoff Webster, picture editor John Edwards, chief reporter John Kay, chief foreign correspondent Nick Parker, and John Sturgis, who is a news editor. The five journalists were arrested at their homes, police said.

"I understand the pressure many of you are under and have the greatest admiration for everyone's continued professionalism," Mockridge wrote.

An editorial in The Sun on Monday said police dawn raids against its journalists were part of a "witch-hunt" that had left Britain behind former Soviet states on press freedom.

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"The Sun is not a 'swamp' that needs draining," wrote associate editor Trevor Kavanagh. "Nor are those other great News International titles, The Times and The Sunday Times," he added.

"Yet in what would at any other time cause uproar in parliament and among civil liberty and human rights campaigners, its journalists are being treated like members of an organized crime gang."

Other journalists also expressed concern about the arrests. Tony Parsons, a columnist on the Daily Mirror tweeted: "In any other country, having the police rounding up journalists at dawn is seen as a sign of repression. Why is it meant to be healthy here?"

The publisher of News of the World tabloid last week paid out hundreds of thousands of pounds to settle lawsuits over phone hacking, including former Prime Minister Tony Blair's spokesman.

The publisher apologized for intercepting phone messages of Alastair Campbell, the Blair aide, and agreed to pay costs and damages, Campbell said in a statement. He did not say how much the settlement was worth.

With Wednesday's settlements, News Group Newspapers has settled 59 of the 60 lawsuits against it.

But former child singing star Charlotte Church, who has testified publicly about the damage phone hacking did to her personal life, has refused to settle. Her case is expected to go to court as soon as this month.

Comic actor Steve Coogan, who settled for £40,000 ($63,000) and legal costs, echoed the words of many who have sued over phone hacking.

"This has never been about money," he said. "Like other people who have sued, I was determined to do my part to show the depths to which the press can sink in pursuit of private information."

British Prime Minister David Cameron set up an independent inquiry into press ethics and practices in response to the scandal, and police are carrying out three separate investigations into elements of it. Two parliamentary committees are also investigating the scandal.

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