LONDON // A police officer guarding members of Britain's royal family was paid by the News of the World for information that would enable their phones to be hacked, it was claimed yesterday.
The claim by the BBC came on the eve of the appearance today of senior Scotland Yard officers before a parliamentary committee investigating the hacking scandal.
Officers past and present are expected to embark on a damage limitation exercise at a time when the image of Britain's police has been deeply scarred by the phone-hacking revelations.
Although most of the media attention has been focused on the scandal surrounding the hacking activities of the News of the World and the impact on Rupert Murdoch's media empire, the focus at the hearing in the House of Commons today will switch to the police's role.
The MPs' inquiry was given added impetus yesterday when Robert Peston, the BBC's business editor, claimed that emails uncovered by News of the World bosses in 2007 but not handed to police until last month, contained evidence of payments to a royal protection officer for the contact details of senior members of the royal family, their friends and relatives.
Peston said the emails contained requests for sums of around £1,000. He quoted his source as saying: "There was clear evidence from the e-mails that the security of the royal family was being put at risk.
"It is quite astonishing that these emails were not handed to the police for investigation when they were first found in 2007."
The allegation highlighted two fundamental problems for the police: why two previous Scotland Yard inquiries wrote off the hacking as the work of a rogue reporter; and the extent to which police officers have been illegally accepting bribes from the News of the World in return for information and tip-offs.
An investigation called Operation Weeting, which is being overseen by the Independent Police Complaints Commission, is under way into payments totalling tens of thousands of pounds allegedly made to police officers.
Sources familiar with the inquiry told The National yesterday that six officers had already been identified as "potential recipients" and that other names were likely to follow.
Rebekah Brooks, a former editor of the News of the World and now chief executive of the Murdoch publishing company in the UK, News International, is expected to be interviewed by police later this week over both the payments and the hacking.
In 2003, Mrs Brooks told a Commons committee that journalists "had paid police for information in the past". Nothing was done about it by the police or parliament at the time and it was only in April this year, as the scandal grew, that she "clarified" her remarks and said she was only talking generally about what she understood had happened and had "no knowledge of any specific cases".
There have been repeated calls for Mrs Brooks to resign but she retains the backing of Mr Murdoch, who arrived in Britain on Sunday.
Yesterday, the family of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, the 13-year-old whose fate elevated the scandal to its current level last week when it emerged the News of the World had hacked her mobile phone after she was abducted in 2002, joined the calls for Mrs Brooks to go.
Their lawyer, Mark Lewis, speaking after her parents met the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, said the family "take the view that Rebekah Brooks should do the honourable thing".
He pointed out that Mrs Brooks was editor at the time of Milly's abduction and that Milly's parents "see this as something that went right to the top".
Today, MPs on the cross-party home affairs select committee will quiz senior police officers who have played vital roles since it first emerged in 2006 that the News of the World's royal editor had paid a private investigator to hack into the voicemails of Buckingham Palace staff.
Among those appearing before the committee will be the former Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner, Andy Hayman, who led the original phone-hacking inquiry, which concluded in 2007 that there was no evidence of widespread hacking at the Sunday newspaper.
Also appearing will be a current assistant commissioner, John Yates, who, two years ago, reviewed the original investigation by Mr Hayman and concluded that there was no new evidence to justify further action against the News of the World, even though fresh allegations had been made
It has since emerged that the phones of almost 4,000 people, including child-murder victims, their parents and the families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, might have been targeted.
In a newspaper interview on Sunday, Mr Yates expressed his "extreme regret" that he had not acted to reopen police inquiries in 2009.
Accepting that the reputation of Scotland Yard had been "very damaged" by his failure to act, he told the Sunday Telegraph: "Had I known then what I know now, all bets are off. I would never have reached this conclusion.
"I am accountable and it happened on my watch and it's clear I could have done more. I have regrettably said the initial inquiry was a success. Clearly, now that looks very different."
The relationship between the police and press in Britain has always been a symbiotic one. The allegations are that it became too close in the News of the World's case, with officers, at one extreme, ready to take cash in exchange for scoops.
Similarly, senior officers are now being accused of being far too ready to accept the newspaper's original version of events as far as the hacking claims were concerned.
The BBC yesterday,alleged that e-mails showing payments were made to officers were authorised by Andy Coulson, New of the World editor from 2003 to 2007.
Mr Coulson, who resigned after the original hacking allegations and went on to become Prime Minister David Cameron's communications director, before being forced out of that post by the scandal last January, was arrested by police on Friday on suspicion of corruption and phone hacking.
In other developments yesterday, the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, revealed that he had referred News Corporation's £8bn bid for BSkyB to the Competition Commission, pushing it back at least six months, after Rupert Murdoch chose on Monday to withdraw his offer to spin off Sky News in order to get the media merger cleared by regulators.
Mr Clegg went further and called on Mr Murdoch to "do the decent thing" and reconsider his BSkyB bid entirely.
It was also reported that journalists from across News International repeatedly targeted the former prime minister Gordon Brown, attempting to access his voicemail and obtaining information from his bank account, his legal file as well as his family's medical records.
Some of the information was allegedly obtained by “blagging”, which involves a journalist or investigator pretending to be someone else to get access to information. News International did not comment on the report.