Wednesday briefing: Jeff Bezos 'hacked' by Saudi prince

Martin Farrer
Photograph: Reuters

Top story: Kingdom faces fresh questions about conduct

Morning everyone. I’m Martin Farrer and these are the top stories from the Guardian this morning.

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and the world’s richest man, had his phone “hacked” after receiving a WhatsApp message from the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, sources have told the Guardian. The message, sent during a friendly exchange between the pair, contained a malicious file that enabled Saudi agents to exfiltrate data from Bezos’s phone within hours of him receiving the message in May 2018, forensic analysis has concluded. Security experts working for Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post newspaper, only began examining his phone last January following the publication by the National Enquirer of a story about Bezos’s affair with Lauren Sanchez.

The revelation will increase unease in western capitals about Saudi Arabia’s aggressive targeting of its perceived enemies after the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the country’s consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. It will also raise renewed questions about how the Enquirer, then owned by David Pecker, a media mogul with close links to Saudi Arabia and also Donald Trump, obtained Bezos’s private text messages and why the publication appeared to be conducting a campaign against the Amazon boss.

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Setbacks for Democrats – Hopes that moderate Republicans could help Democrats shift the rules of engagement in Donald Trump’s impeachment trial were dashed this morning. In votes along party lines, the Senate rejected a series of attempts to subpoena witnesses and force the White House to produce evidence. The votes, which included a bid to force former national security chief John Bolton to give evidence, came amid fierce debate on the first day of the president’s impeachment trial, which began when chief justice John Roberts brought down his gavel to begin proceedings shortly after 1pm Washington time. There could be renewed efforts by Democrats to bring forward witnesses but for now they have been frustrated by what one called a “cover-up”. Republicans stuck with their party despite pressure on senators such as Mitt Romney and Susan Collins to shift ground. Trump was in Davos where he warned business and political leaders not to listen to the “prophets of doom” on climate change.

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Dementia ‘dump’ – Emergency hospital admissions for people with dementia have risen by more than a third in five years, a new study shows, as sufferers are increasingly being “dumped” on the health service. There were more than 379,000 emergency admissions in England for people with dementia in 2017-18, the Alzheimer’s Society says, a rise of one third on 2012-13. The NHS data also showed that 40,000 people stayed in hospital more than a month after their admission.

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Travellers at Beijing railway station on Wednesday. Photograph: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Mutation risk – China warned that the outbreak of coronavirus that has killed nine people and infected another 440 could “mutate” as it spreads around the country. Health officials said they feared the upcoming lunar new year holiday could increase the risk of contagion and announced measures to minimise large crowds and increase temperature checks and screening. Wuhan, the central city suspected of being the epicentre of the outbreak, has been placed into lockdown with its 11 million residents advised not to leave.

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Online crackdown – Technology companies will be forced to take more measures to protect children from online abuse and predators in a crackdown planned for next year by the information watchdog. Firms will be have to assess their sites for sexual abuse risks, prevent content that could lead to self-harm or suicide, and block children from broadcasting their location. They could face heavy fines if they fail to comply.

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Labouring on – The race to succeed Jeremy Corbyn is hurtling along with two significant developments. First Jess Phillips pulled out of the race, lifting the prospects of Wigan MP Lisa Nandy, who is now backed by the powerful GMB union. Our columnist Zoe Williams thinks Kier Starmer’s “soft left” credentials are just the thing to unite the party. Also, in the first part of a new series, there’s a must-read piece from our political editor Heather Stewart about how Labour’s election campaign was undermined by tactical spats, mixed messages and frayed tempers as the party’s hierarchy struggled to find the right strategy on Brexit.

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Royal wrangle – The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are threatening legal action over photographs taken of Meghan while walking in the woods on Vancouver Island, their new home in Canada. The couple say the pictures were taken without their permission by photographers hiding in bushes. The latest flashpoint with the media came hours after Harry arrived in the country to begin a new life which they hope will take them out of the spotlight. Channel 5 will tonight broadcast an interview with Meghan’s estranged father, Thomas Markle, in which he attempts to defend his reputation and denies doing “trashy things”.

Today in Focus podcast: Zoë Brock v Harvey Weinstein

Like dozens of women in the entertainment industry, the actor, model and writer Zoë Brock has claimed she had a traumatic encounter with the film producer Harvey Weinstein. Now she is faced with a settlement offer that she believes would allow him to escape blame for the alleged assaults. Also today: Lily Kuo on the spread of the deadly coronavirus in China.

Lunchtime read: Kitty the nation – how cats leave us divided

cat

An unlikely legal battle over a cat in west London captured headlines when a couple were forced to go to court to enforce their ownership after a neighbour allegedly tried to adopt it. Far from being a one-off case, it seems our feline friends (or enemies) are divisive pets. From one family in rural Scotland being shunned for having the temerity to ask the local landowner not to shoot their cat to the woman forced to move house after her cat ate all the frogs in her neighbour’s pond, we look at how the humble domestic moggy can cause a lot of spilt milk.

Sport

David Luiz saw red in the first half but Arsenal twice battled back to secure a point in the London derby against Chelsea. Sergio Agüero secured a win off the bench for Manchester City against Sheffield United when the defending champions appeared in danger of being held for a second successive game. Crowd favourite and world No 1 Ashleigh Barty remains on track to win her home grand slam after brushing aside Polona Hercog in the Australian Open. Premiership Rugby has rejected any suggestion that other leading clubs may be breaching the salary cap following Saracens’ relegation to the Championship. In a critical look at the short form of cricket, Vic Marks writes that the England Under-19s team struggling at the World Cup still underpin Joe Root’s Test side. Mo Farah has waded into the row over whether his blood and urine samples should be retested as part of an investigation into the Nike Oregon Project, insisting he is more than happy for the authorities to do so.

Business

The Turkish conglomerate Cengiz Holdings could step in to buy British Steel if a planned £50m sale to the Chinese industrial firm Jingye falls through, the Guardian understands. Donald Trump boasted at Davos that the US was undergoing an unprecedented economic boom and financial markets liked his optimism, sending stocks higher on most Asian bourses. The FTSE100 is due for a modest rise this morning while the pound is £1.305 and €1.177.

The papers

The Times leads on news from Davos with “Trump calls for ‘prophets of doom’ to be rejected”, as does the i with a different take: “Earth’s No1 climate change denier”. The Telegraph has “Tech giants to be bound by code of conduct” and the Metro agrees that’s the top story under a headline saying “Safety net”.

The Guardian has “Amazon boss Jeff Bezos’s phone ‘hacked by Saudi crown prince” while the Mail leads with royals closer to home. “Diana’s niece milking it, too!” it says, in a story about Lady Kitty Spencer promoting milk sales in China. The Express is interested in a “Crackdown on soft justice” it says is planned by the government. The red tops agree that Ozzy Osbourne’s illness is the top story. “Ozzy: I have Parkinson’s … I can’t hide my pain any more” says the Mirror while the Sun has “Ozzy: I hid my Parkinson’s for a year”.

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