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UK police likely to quiz PM's aide over hacking

Police will likely interview the prime minister's communications chief over allegations that a major British tabloid illegally eavesdropped on politicians and celebrities, a senior Scotland Yard officer said Tuesday.

world Updated: Sep 07, 2010 19:51 IST
AP

Police will likely interview the prime minister's communications chief over allegations that a major British tabloid illegally eavesdropped on politicians and celebrities, a senior Scotland Yard officer said Tuesday.

Assistant Commissioner John Yates told Parliament's Home Affairs select committee that he is considering whether the force could begin a new investigation into the case. A former royal reporter at the 3 million-circulation weekly News of The World tabloid and a private investigator were sentenced to jail in 2007 for intercepting cell phone voice messages left for royal officials, including some from Princes William and Harry.

Although police said at the time there was no evidence of widespread illegal behavior at the newspaper, legislators claim recent comments from some former reporters suggest breaking in to voicemail was commonplace. Prime Minister David Cameron's communications director Andy Coulson -- the newspaper's editor at the time -- has come under pressure over the scandal, and has pledged to meet with police if officers request it.

Yates told the committee that police would interview at least one ex-reporter, and then are likely to speak with Coulson.

"At some stage, I imagine we would be seeing him in some capacity," Yates said. Coulson quit as editor of the News of The World in 2007 after the royal reporter, Clive Goodman, was convicted of hacking. Coulson has denied wrongdoing, or any knowledge that hacking cell phone voice messages was widespread among his former staff.

In a report on Sunday, The New York Times claimed that Coulson had participated in dozens or even hundreds of meetings where the hacking was discussed. Scotland Yard found nearly 3,000 cell phone numbers over the course of their initial investigation and said hundreds of people were thought to have been targeted.

However, it is likely far fewer had their phones actually broken into. Yates has said police are interested in comments made to the Times by a former tabloid reporter, Sean Hoare, who said Coulson had asked him to hack into phones. He said he would discuss with prosecutors whether to reopen the investigation if new evidence is uncovered.

Britain's Guardian newspaper reported on Tuesday that the Home Office had previously ruled out calling in a police oversight panel to check on the original investigation. The newspaper quoted a leaked memo in which an official said a review into the inquiry would suggest the government did not have confidence in the London police department.

The Home Office declined to confirm whether or not a review had been prevented, saying it does not comment on leaked documents. Cameron's Downing Street office has said Coulson has the prime minister's support.

The News of the World has accused the Times of being motivated by commercial rivalry. The tabloid is owned by News International Ltd., a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., whose U.S. media outlets include Fox Television, the New York Post, and the Wall Street Journal -- which is in fierce competition with The New York Times.

First Published: Sep 07, 2010 19:46 IST