July 21, 2011 10:02 pm

Web of intrigue widens in hacking scandal

The News of the World phone hacking scandal spread in several directions on Thursday, as police prepared to look at alleged illegality in other newspapers and Downing Street denied that a senior civil servant had complained to the cabinet secretary about possible interception of his phone while Andy Coulson was David Cameron’s director of communications.

Mr Coulson, a former News of the World editor who has denied any knowledge of phone hacking, was the subject of scrutiny over why he did not have full “developed vetting” security clearance when he went to work alongside the prime minister in Number 10.

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Two sources familiar with their contents have told the Financial Times that e-mails sent to and from Mr Coulson and other executives of the paper, all now in police hands, make it hard to understand how lawyers who reviewed them in 2007 did not report their contents to News International, the paper’s parent company.

The solicitors concerned, Harbottle and Lewis, have been allowed by News International to make statements to MPs and the police about their role, and a person familiar with their thinking said they were considering their next move. This may include a public statement.

Solicitors not involved in the case asked why Burton Copeland, another law firm, was not being pushed to publish the results of a nine-month investigation it did into News of the World in 2006. An e-mail requesting comment from Burton Copeland was not returned.

The firm, known for its expertise in criminal law, undertook a probe in 2006 following the arrests of the paper’s royal correspondent and a private detective. Burton Copeland trawled 2,500 e-mails and “four lever-arch files of payment records,” according to testimony in 2009 to a select committee by Tom Crone, the News of the World’s former legal manager.

James Murdoch, deputy chief operating officer of News Corp, told the House of Commons media select committee on Tuesday the company had relied on legal opinion from Harbottle and Lewis in 2007, but made no mention of Burton Copeland.

Detectives working for Operation Weeting, the renewed investigation into phone hacking, are consulting the files of Operation Motorman, the 2003 investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office into “blagging”, or obtaining information such as bank and health records or ex-directory phone numbers by deception.

Motorman led to two reports by the ICO which identified that more than 300 journalists from 31 publications sought 4,000 “blags” from Steve Whittamore, one of more than a dozen private investigators then working for the media. Unlike phone hacking, blagging offences are not necessarily criminal and can be defended by citing an overriding public interest in the information being published.

Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, put more pressure on News Corp when he urged Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator, to show vigour when considering an inquiry into whether Rupert Murdoch’s group was “fit and proper” to control British Sky Broadcasting’s broadcasting licence.

Shares in News Corp rose for a third day, however, standing up nearly 3.5 per cent at $16.48 in New York.

Separately, the Conservative party revealed that Neil Wallis, former deputy editor of the News of the World – who has been arrested in connection to hacking – visited Downing Street on May 26 last year as a guest of Mr Coulson.

Ben Fenton, Caroline Binham, Salamander Davoudi and Jim Pickard in London and Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson in New York

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