Britain: Who Else Hacked Phones?

July 23, 2011 - 6:44 AM

Britain Phone Hacking

Signs showing the current News International newspaper titles are displayed where a sign for the News of the World newspaper used to sit alongside them, until its recent closure, outside offices of News International in London, Friday, July 22, 2011. A British lawmaker said Friday he will ask police to investigate a claim contradicting James Murdoch's testimony he was not aware of evidence that the eavesdropping at one of his newspapers went beyond a jailed rogue reporter. Murdoch's former legal adviser and an ex-editor say they told media mogul Rupert Murdoch's son years ago about an email that suggested the rot at the News of the World tabloid was more widespread than claimed. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

LONDON (AP) — The chief villain in Britain's phone hacking scandal, the News of the World tabloid, is history, shut by owner Rupert Murdoch. But was it the only shadowy practitioner in Britain's cutthroat media market? Some celebrities think not.

Actor Jude Law is suing The Sun, another tabloid owned by Murdoch, for allegedly hacking into his voice mails. And actor Hugh Grant, now a vigorous campaigner against phone hacking, is pushing to learn who in the British media may have intercepted his phone messages.

Britons greet their scandals with cynicism about fallen figures, but they are not used to ones that sweep up major institutions all at once. Police, politicians and journalists were pulled into what Prime Minister David Cameron called a "firestorm," and now people wonder how far this one will go. Even the number of possible hacking victims is uncertain, with the number said to run into the thousands.

The focus for now is on the News of the World and its management, as well as former executives who were arrested in a police investigation. But a key question that has yet to be addressed is to what extent other newspapers hacked the voice mails of celebrities and others in an attempt to garner gossip and other titbits deemed worthy of print.

The slow pace of investigative work, the challenge of untangling evidence in seized documents and confidentiality clauses in any settlements between newspapers and plaintiffs mean it could take months or years to uncover the full extent of wrongdoing, if it happens at all.

"I believe it to be widespread," said Max Clifford, a celebrity publicist who got a hefty payout from the News of the World after his phone was hacked in an earlier scandal. "News of the World were definitely the leaders of the pack, but they weren't isolated. They weren't the only ones."

The scandal erupted a few weeks ago with allegations that journalists at the News of the World hacked the phone of a 13-year-old murder victim while police were still searching for her and broadened to include claims reporters paid police for information. Arrests followed, top police officials quit, and Murdoch and his son, James, told a parliamentary committee that they were unaware of wrongdoing.

Murdoch's camp has sought to deflect criticism by alleging that News of the World was unfairly tarnished, accusing newspapers that have printed critical reports of hypocrisy and suggesting that phone hacking was hardly confined to one media organization.

Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre told a parliamentary committee this month that some "questionable methods" could be justified to break a story that was in the public interest, but he said he had never considered phone hacking or "blagging," or obtaining information through misrepresentation.

"Clearly, they are criminal charges," he said.

Fresh information on hacking could emerge in January, when dozens of alleged victims, including former government ministers, bring a joint lawsuit against News International, which runs Murdoch's British newspapers, to the High Court in London.

The case will focus on five lead claimants chosen to represent the different types of people who were allegedly targeted — Hollywood actor Law, British lawmaker Chris Bryant, former soccer star Paul Gascoigne, interior designer Kelly Hoppen and soccer agent Sky Andrew.

Lawyer Tamsin Allen, who represents Bryant, said so far 32 claimants in all had joined the action, which will decide whether hacking took place and whether victims should receive compensation.

Law is already suing The Sun for allegedly hacking his telephone mails for stories about his private life. News International denies the claim, accusing the actor of "a deeply cynical and deliberately mischievous attempt" to drag The Sun into the scandal. The Sun is the first paper other than the News of the World to face a phone-hacking lawsuit.

Law's spokeswoman, Sara Keene, on Friday declined to comment on any aspect of phone hacking.

On Wednesday, actor Grant was granted the right to see evidence that could reveal whether his voice mails were intercepted by journalists at the News of the World or other newspapers.

A judge at Britain's High Court ordered police to disclose information to Grant and his former girlfriend, Jemima Khan, that was allegedly gathered by private investigator Glenn Mulcaire. Mulcaire, who was jailed for phone hacking in 2007, worked for the News of the World and may also have sold information to other newspapers.

The Guardian reported that their lawyer, David Sherborne, also asked for any information the police had on "passing of material about the claimants to other newspapers."

Martin Moore, a founder of Hacked Off, a group that seeks full accountability in the phone-hacking scandal, said documents seized from Mulcaire, which are key to police and parliamentary inquiries, are difficult to decipher because they don't spell out the identities of alleged phone hacking targets. A document might list a birthday instead of a name, for example, but it is not clear whose birthday it is.

"It's terribly difficult to know what else they mean," Moore said. "I can understand why that would be quite daunting for the police."

Another former private investigator with links to News of the World is Jonathan Rees, who was charged with conspiring to murder a former business partner, though the charge was eventually dropped. Moore said documents seized from Rees deserve more scrutiny and, he said, "there may be other private investigators we don't know about."

CNN talk show host Piers Morgan has been drawn into the debate, denying claims he was involved in hacking when he was editor of the News of the World and a non-Murdoch tabloid, the Daily Mirror.

British lawmaker Louise Mensch, who was on the committee that questioned the Murdochs, said Morgan has been "very open about his personal use of phone hacking," and had boasted about it in his memoir "The Insider."

In fact, Morgan writes in the book of being suspicious that his own phone was hacked and says that after being warned by a friend, he changed his phone's security code. Morgan challenged Mensch to repeat the claim outside Parliament, where parliamentary privilege protects members form being sued. She has declined.

Morgan told the AP that any suggestion that he was involved in phone hacking is "a falsehood and I suspect maliciously done."

"I'm obviously very high-profile back in Britain. There's lots of old friends in the newspaper game that would like nothing more than to drag my name into this and have tried very hard to do so," he said.

Morgan edited the News of the World in 1994 and 1995. He later moved to the Mirror, but was forced to quit in 2004 after the newspaper ran pictures of British soldiers allegedly abusing Iraqis that turned out to have been faked.

The Guardian devoted considerable effort to investigating phone hacking, and The Independent and The Observer also pursued the story prior to the scandal that shook British public life. Clifford, the publicist whose voice mail was hacked, noted that some newspapers had avoided the matter even though it was hurting the reputation of their rivals at the News of the World.

"I think that pretty much speaks for itself," Clifford said without elaborating. He said police should investigate other newspapers if necessary, even if it entails more embarrassing revelations of inappropriate ties between law enforcement and the media.

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Lynn Elber contributed from Los Angeles.