The tricks of the trade of Britain's rambunctious tabloid press came under scrutiny Thursday, after a newspaper reported that a tabloid owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch had illegally hacked into the mobile phones of hundreds of celebrities and politicians.
But in the end police said they would not reopen an investigation into the claims against Murdoch's News of the World, accused by The Guardian newspaper of paying private investigators to obtain voice mail messages, bank statements and other information about public figures, including Gwyneth Paltrow, George Michael and senior British politicians.
The News of the World's royal editor, Clive Goodman, was jailed in January 2007 for hacking into the phones of palace officials, and The Guardian claimed the practice was widespread at the newspaper at the time.
On Thursday morning, Paul Stephenson, London's police chief, announced that he had appointed a senior Scotland Yard officer to look into The Guardian's claims. But seven hours later, that officer, police Assistant Commissioner John Yates, announced that the allegations had been thoroughly examined during the Goodman case and "no further investigation is required."
But it didn't end there.
Urgent review of evidence
Britain's chief prosecutor, Keir Starmer, then said he had ordered an urgent review of the evidence given by police to prosecutors in the Goodman case to be sure that "the appropriate actions" had been taken.
Starmer said he had "no reason to consider that there was anything inappropriate in the prosecutions that were undertaken in this case," and the Crown Prosecution Service declined to say whether new charges could be laid.
The Guardian reported that the News of the World — the country's most popular Sunday paper — paid private investigators to obtain voice mail messages, private phone numbers, bank statements and other information about as many as 3,000 public figures, from late reality TV star Jade Goody to former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.
The News of the World is owned by News International Ltd., a subsidiary of Murdoch's News Corp., whose U.S. media outlets include Fox Television, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post.
Citing anonymous senior police sources, The Guardian said journalists at the tabloid used private investigators to hack into private voicemail messages, using the information to "gain unlawful access to confidential personal data, including tax records, social security files, bank statements and itemized phone bills."
The Guardian wrote that the News of the World had paid more than $1.6 million in secret out-of-court settlements to three of the targets, including Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association.
News International said in a statement that it was "prevented by confidentiality obligations" from discussing some of The Guardian's allegations, but said it worked to ensure its journalists operated within the law.
Focus on Paltrow
Most of the claims in the Guardian story date from 2006. The newspaper said Paltrow was targeted by private investigators after she had given birth to her son, Moses, and George Michael the same year he had been photographed dozing behind the wheel of his car.
Spokespeople for Paltrow and Michael did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
Goodman was jailed for four months in 2007 for hacking into royal officials' voicemail systems. His accomplice, private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, was sentenced to six months in prison for hacking into the messages, including some from Princes William and Harry. The judge said Mulcaire duped mobile phone network operators into passing him confidential PIN numbers to access messages left on the cell phones.
News International executives said Goodman had acted without the knowledge of other journalists or editors.
Yates said police had found that Goodman and Mulcaire had a list of hundreds of "potential targets," but that only a small number of phones had actually been hacked
"In the vast majority of cases there was insufficient evidence to show that tapping had actually been achieved," he said.
Debate rages on
The Guardian's report re-ignites a long-simmering debate about the ethics of Britain's newspapers, which compete aggressively for readers and stories, and routinely deploy cash handouts and subterfuge to get scoops. An exclusive about a politician or celebrity can mean hundreds of thousands of extra copies sold for a tabloid like the News of the World, which has a circulation of about 3 million.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown said The Guardian's allegations raised "questions that are serious and will obviously have to be answered."
Britain's Data Protection Act makes it an offense to "obtain, disclose or procure the disclosure" of personal information without consent.
But in 2006, Information Commissioner Richard Thomas, Britain's data-protection watchdog, said in a report that there was "an unlawful trade in confidential personal information," with much of it going to the media.
The Information Commissioner's office said Thursday that in 2006 it handed police evidence that 31 journalists from the News of the World and its sister paper, The Sun, had bought and sold illegally obtained personal information.
Assistant Information Commissioner Mick Gorrill said the evidence was of "blagging," or obtaining information through misrepresentation.
A 'one-off case'?
Adrian Monck, head of the journalism program at London's City University, said many media-watchers believed the Goodman story "was not an isolated, one-off case."
"For years the stock-in-trade of tabloid journalists has been the ability to get this kind of secret information," he said.
The case also raises questions for David Cameron, leader of the opposition Conservative Party. The News of the World's editor at the time of the Goodman case was Andy Coulson, now Cameron's director of communications. He resigned from his newspaper post after Goodman was sentenced, but said he had no knowledge of the hacking.
Cameron said he had given Coulson a "second chance" by hiring him after he left the News of the World.
"As director of communications for the Conservatives he does an excellent job in a proper, upright way at all times," Cameron said Thursday.
More on Rupert Murdoch