A cabinet minister has sharply criticised Scotland Yard for accepting what he called News International’s “implausible” account of phone hacking at one of its tabloids, as it emerged that Gordon Brown had acted on fears that he was targeted.
Chris Huhne, the energy secretary, raised the political stakes in the illegal surveillance scandal by claiming the police failed to pursue fully the investigation even though the News of the World account was allegedly “not consistent” with the evidence.
His intervention came as friends of Mr Brown confirmed the former prime minister had written to the police in the summer to ask whether his phone messages were illegally intercepted. He is still waiting for a reply.
The developments add to the deepening sense of crisis at News International over the allegations of phone hacking at the News of the World, which last week forced Andy Coulson to quit as Downing Street communications director.
Mr Coulson denies being aware of illegal techniques being used when working at the tabloid, but resigned as its editor in 2007 after his royal correspondent and a private detective were jailed for intercepting voicemails.
His decision to leave Downing Street came after several celebrities lodged civil actions over alleged phone hacking and a week after the Crown Prosecution Service launched a review of police evidence.
Mr Huhne, a former journalist and the Liberal Democrats’ home affairs spokesman in opposition, said it was clear “the number of people being hacked was not consistent with it being one rogue reporter who happened to be the royal correspondent”. He added in a BBC interview: “It seemed to me totally implausible that this was limited to one journalist. And I was surprised that the police seem to have accepted that story.”
Ian Edmondson, head of news at the Sunday tabloid since since 2005, was suspended by NI this month after being named in a High Court document as having commissioned a private detective to intercept voicemail messages of the actress Sienna Miller.
Mr Huhne went on to cast doubt over a review of evidence by John Yates, Metropolitan police assistant commissioner, in 2009, which concluded that there was insufficient evidence to reopen inquiries.
“We know the police were not keen on that subject because when I called for a very clear review of this, the police scurried back into Scotland Yard, spent less than a day reviewing it and popped out again in time for the six o’clock news to say that they had discovered no further evidence,” he said.
His comments will heap further pressure on Scotland Yard, as senior officers prepare for a hearing before the Metropolitan Police Authority, where questions over the case may emerge. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former director of communications, said the “lacklustre” police investigation was a “scandal”.
In spite of their criticisms, Mr Huhne and Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister, said there was no reason to disbelieve Mr Coulson’s account of his time at the News of the World.
Mark Lewis, a solicitor acting for several stars suing the newspaper group, said this weekend he was preparing civil legal action against other papers on behalf of four other clients.
Rupert Murdoch, owner of the News of the World, arrives in London this week for a short stay as his News Corp media group awaits a decision on referring its £8.3bn bid for control of BSkyB to the competition watchdog.
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