LONDON // Three fresh inquiries were launched yesterday into claims that Britain's biggest selling newspaper tapped the phones of hundreds of politicians and celebrities, behaviour that has revived debate about the tactics used by tabloid journalists. Although the police have ruled out further criminal action against News of the World ? a Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid whose royal correspondent was jailed in 2007 for tapping Buckingham Palace staff members' phones ? the Crown Prosecution Service was yesterday carrying out an "urgent" review of the case.
The move follows claims in The Guardian newspaper that up to 1,000 public figures were potential targets in a phone-hacking exercise routinely carried out by private investigators at the behest of reporters at News of the World and its sister daily newspaper, The Sun. Allegations that the then-deputy prime minister, John Prescott, the Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson and the actress Gwyneth Paltrow were on the illegal phone-tap list have shocked the British public.
On Thursday, however, Scotland Yard announced that, after reviewing the case and trial of Clive Goodman, the News of the World royal reporter, "no additional evidence has come to light since this case has concluded [and] that no further investigation is required". The decision surprised many and led to claims that the police were being too narrow in their investigation by only reviewing the events surrounding the Goodman trial.
The mounting clamour led to Keir Starmer, the director of public prosecutions, announcing yesterday that he had ordered a fresh review of the affair, which he said was to "satisfy myself and assure the public that the appropriate actions were taken". A House of Commons committee is also to investigate the lengths to which the tabloid press in the UK now seems prepared to go to get stories, particularly scandal about celebrities, politicians and royals - as is the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).
The affair has also raised questions over the future of Andy Coulson, who is communications director of the opposition Conservative Party but who, at the time of the Goodman scandal, was editor of News of the World. He resigned when Goodman was jailed, denying any knowledge of the phone tapping but saying that he was stepping down because the illegal activity "happened on my watch". David Cameron, the Conservative leader, was standing by Mr Coulson yesterday.
Additionally, several of the individuals whose phones were allegedly tapped have been in touch with lawyers, raising the possibility of a class action against News of the World. Andrew Neil, a former editor of The Sunday Times, another Murdoch-owned newspaper, said the questions raised over tabloid journalists' activities represented "one of the most significant media stories of modern times". "It suggests that rather than being a one-off journalist or rogue private investigator, it was systemic throughout the News of the World and, to a lesser extent, The Sun."
Mr Neil said phone tapping was illegal but journalists might have a public interest defence if what they were doing was an investigation of major importance to uncover wrongdoing. "But that's not the case in any of this," he said. "Breaking into Gwyneth Paltrow's voicemail after she's just had a baby is not in the public interest." In a statement, News International, which publishes News of the World and The Sun, said it had been working with its journalists and industry partners to ensure reporters fully complied with legislation and the requirements of the PCC's Code of Conduct. "At the same time, we will not shirk from vigorously defending our right and proper role to expose wrongdoing in the public interest."