x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Britain's "News of the World" admits hacking phones of royals, celebs

Amid fresh claims that the phone of a royal family member had been hacked, Britain¿s News of the World has admitted that its reporters paid private investigators to tap into mobile phone voicemails.

Britain's most powerful media group is facing a multi-million pound payout to celebrities, politicians and other public figures after admitting years of hacking into their private phones.

Amid fresh claims yesterday that the phone of a member of the royal family had been hacked, the News of the World - the UK's largest selling Sunday newspaper - offered an "unreserved apology" after admitting on Friday that its reporters had paid private investigators to tap into mobile phone voicemails.

The newspaper's owner, News International, which is run by Rupert Murdoch's son James, is understood to have set aside a £20 million (Dh120.3m) fund to pay compensation to those who have been targeted.

So far, News International has identified eight individuals, including actress Sienna Miller, former Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell and a female aide to former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, as being among the victims but The Sunday Telegraph yesterday estimated that the final tally of victims could be as high as 100.

The scandal, however, is likely to grow to embrace other British tabloids. While the leading non-tabloid newspapers have used phone taps only in investigations involving crimes or wrongdoing by public figures, journalists have privately known for years that the tabloid press routinely used phone and computer hacking to try to get scoops on celebrities.

It was, however, only in 2007 that the public became aware of the tactics when News of the World royal reporter Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire were jailed after admitting hacking into the voicemails of Buckingham Palace staff members.

Editor Andy Coulson resigned after the convictions but denied he knew anything about the practice. A few months later, he was appointed press secretary to now-Prime Minister David Cameron. But he resigned earlier this year when the scandal would not go away.

From the start, News International executives have denied any widespread hacking was going on, including when they gave evidence to a parliamentary investigating committee.

Two previous Scotland Yard investigations have also concluded there was little evidence to justify the hacking allegations.

However, a third police inquiry is underway following claims that the first two were little more than a whitewash because of the closeness of officers to the journalists involved.

News International has also now had to admit the practice was widespread and, in its page-two apology yesterday, the newspaper said it "should not have happened" and that the practice "was and remains unacceptable".

The long-running controversy has been a source of considerable embarrassment to News International at a time when its parent company, Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, is seeking government approval to take full control of BSkyB, the UK's largest satellite TV provider.

What appears to have triggered the sudden admission of guilt and the apology was the arrest last week of the News of the World's chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck and the paper's former news editor Ian Edmondson on suspicion of having unlawfully intercepted voicemail messages.

The apology, however, appears to have failed to placate the victims with Ms Miller vowing yesterday to do everything possible to hold to account those responsible for the "outrageous violations of her privacy".

Mark Thomson, her lawyer, released a statement on her behalf, which said: "Sienna's claims are based on outrageous violations of her privacy; her voicemails were persistently hacked and the information obtained was used to publish numerous intrusive articles over a period of a year.

"She is awaiting information and disclosure from the News of the World which has been ordered by the court and will consider her next steps once this is provided.

"Her primary concern is to discover the whole truth and for all those responsible to be held to account."

Ms Miller's court action is only one of several in the pipeline and many more are expected, not least after The Independent on Sunday yesterday claimed that Princess Eugenie, the daughter of the Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, had been among the victims.

Questioned on BBC television yesterday about the scandal, Danny Alexander, the chief secretary to the treasury in the coalition government, described it as "very serious" and said that the latest police investigation and impending court cases "must go forward".

He added: "It's outrageous that people have had their voicemails hacked into - seemingly a large number of people. That's not something that could be acceptable in any set of circumstances."

Labour leader Ed Miliband demanded to know who knew about the "criminal behaviour" and when.

He told reporters: "What we have seen is a serious admission of wrongdoing by News International.

"We have now got to get to the bottom of any criminal behaviour, which is a matter for the police and should be thoroughly investigated.

"We need to know who knew about these actions and when. We also need to know how far across the organisation knowledge of these actions went."

dsapsted@thenational.ae