LONDON // The prime minister David Cameron's director of communications is to face police and parliamentary inquiries into claims that he knew journalists were hacking into the phones of politicians and the royal family when he was the editor of a Sunday newspaper.
The decision by the House of Commons' home affairs committee to investigate follows allegations in The New York Times last week that Andy Coulson, regarded as one of the PM's closest aides, had been aware of the illegal activity when he edited the News of the World.
Although he resigned as editor because "it happened on my watch", Mr Coulson, 42, has strenuously denied knowledge of the phone hacking, which involved accessing voicemails rather than tapping calls. However, in an article in The New York Times last week, Sean Hoare, a former News of the World reporter, claimed that Mr Coulson had not only known about the hacking but had actively encouraged it. Hoare, who was fired from the paper because of drink and drug problems, subsequently told the BBC that Mr Coulson had told him to practise his "dark arts".
In parliament yesterday, Mr Cameron, who supports Mr Coulson, was expected to be quizzed about the allegations. However, the PM did not attend because he had travelled to France where his father had suffered a stroke while on holiday. (Ian Cameron died yesterday, the prime minister's office announced last night.) Instead, Jack Straw, the shadow justice secretary, pressed Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, on whether he was satisfied that while Mr Coulson was editor of the News of the World, "at no time was Mr Coulson aware of any use of unlawful hacking of telephones".
Mr Clegg replied: "This is a very serious offence indeed and an outrageous invasion of privacy and it is right that two individuals were convicted and imprisoned. As for Mr Coulson, he made it very clear that he took responsibility for something of which he had no knowledge at the News of the World and he refutes all the allegations that have been made to the contrary." Mr Clegg said Mr Coulson's statement "speaks for itself".
"It is now for the police and the police alone to decide whether new evidence has come to light which needs to be investigated." Several prominent Labour MPs, led by Lord John Prescott, a former deputy prime minister, have been demanding to know from Scotland Yard whether the paper had hacked into their phones, too. They accuse police of being too close to reporters on the newspaper and claim that the original investigation was not thorough enough.
John Yates, an assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, has ordered an internal inquiry into the police investigation of the 2007 hacking. Mr Coulson and Hoare will be questioned as part of that probe. However, after Mr Yates gave evidence on Tuesday to the home affairs committee, its chairman, Keith Vaz, announced the holding of the new, parliamentary inquiry. It will focus on the police response to the hacking allegations, the ease of prosecuting such offences, and the treatment of victims.
Mr Yates had come under fire from MPs on the committee over the police's decision not to make contact with 91 people - believed to include politicians and celebrities - whose voicemail personal identifiction numbers (Pins) were discovered during the investigations into the hacking of the princes' voicemails. But Mr Yates retorted: "You may not believe it, but I still think the investigation was a success, and if HMI [the police inspectorate] wants to come and have a look at it, I wouldn't have a problem at all."
The New York Times has refused to cooperate with Scotland Yard. It is standard practice for newspapers in the United States not to share their reporting with police unless a court compels them to do so. Conservative ministers in the coalition government that came to power in May say that the New York paper is locked in a circulation battle with The Wall Street Journal, which is now owned by the media empire headed by Rupert Murdoch.
The News of the World is another part of that empire and virtually all those demanding action against Mr Coulson are Labour politicians long opposed to Mr Murdoch's control of a large and influential slab of the UK media. Harriet Harman, the acting leader of the Labour Party, has written to Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson asking him to alert any of the party's MPs "if their name, phone number or Pin number appears in the list of phones uncovered in your investigation into phone tapping by the News of the World".
Tom Watson, a former Labour minister, has warned the home secretary, Theresa May, that British democracy risked becoming a "laughing stock" unless allegations of phone hacking are fully investigated. He called on Mr Yates to look further than just Hoare's claims. "The Met Police continues its disdainful disinclination to actually investigate this case. The public and parliament expect answers," he said.