The Commons culture, media and sport select committee is poised to reopen an inquiry into tabloid phone tapping following fresh claims by the Guardian newspaper.
Conservative MP John Whittingdale, who chairs the committee, will convene an urgent meeting today to discuss the allegations and will then summon newspaper editors to answer “serious” questions.
He spoke out after the Guardian claimed News Group Newspapers, which publishes the News of the World and The Sun, had paid out more than £1m to settle cases that threatened to reveal evidence of its journalists’ alleged involvement in telephone hacking.
MPs from all three parties including former deputy prime minister John Prescott and cabinet minister Tessa Jowell were among the targets of the alleged phone taps, The Guardian said.
The Guardian piece, by investigative journalist and Flat Earth News author Nick Davies, quoted sources saying police officers found evidence of News Group staff using private investigators who had hacked into “thousands” of mobile phones.
Whittingdale told the Press Association: “My view is that this has raised very serious questions about the evidence given to us.
“There are a number of questions I would like to put to News International on the basis of what The Guardian has reported.”
‘Matter of urgency’
The committee would examine the matter “as a matter of urgency” at a scheduled meeting later today, he said.
“It may well be that we decide we wish to have somebody from News International to appear before us.”
He said he had seen no “direct evidence” that assurances previously given to the committee by the publisher on the matter had been untrue.
But he added: “If that is the case it does beg the question why News International have apparently paid huge sums of money in settlement of actions in the courts.
“That is a question I would wish to put to News International.”
Prescott said he wanted answers from the police over the claims they knew his phone was tapped by private investigators working for journalists.
“I find it staggering that there could be a list known to the police of people who had their phone tapped,” he said.
“I’m named as one of them, for such a criminal act not to be reported to me, and for action not to be taken against the people who have done it, reflects very badly on the police, and I want to know their answer.”
The Guardian said Andy Coulson, Conservative leader David Cameron’s director of communications, was deputy editor and then editor of the News of the World when journalists were using the private investigators.
Coulson resigned from the News of the World after royal editor Clive Goodman was sentenced to four months in prison in January 2007 for plotting to hack into telephone messages belonging to royal aides.
The Guardian said the £1m paid out by News Group to secure secrecy concerned three out-of-court settlements in cases that would have shown the alleged methods being used.
One of the settlements, totalling £700,000 in legal costs and damages, involved legal action brought by Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers Association, the newspaper said.
In the Goodman trial, Taylor was revealed as one of the public figures whose phone messages were illegally intercepted by private investigator Glenn Mulcaire.
Coulson said last night: “This story relates to an alleged payment made after I left the News of the World two and half years ago.
“I have no knowledge whatsoever of any settlement with Gordon Taylor.
“The Mulcaire case was investigated thoroughly by the police and by the Press Complaints Commission. I took full responsibility at the time for what happened on my watch but without my knowledge and resigned.”
Labour sought to use the allegations to question Coulson’s role with the Conservatives.
Former cabinet minister Geoff Hoon said: “It is hard to see how in these circumstances Andy Coulson can continue as David Cameron’s communications chief while such a cloud hangs over his reputation.
“David Cameron must make clear what action he intends to take on this matter.”
‘Out of control’
Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne said: “At the very least Andy Coulson was responsible for a newspaper that was out of control and at worst he was personally implicated.
“Either way, a future prime minister cannot have someone who is involved in these sort of underhand tactics. The exact parallel is with Damian McBride.
“If it is more than a thousand (phone taps) it seems most unlikely to me to have been just one journalist. There needs to be a full investigation.”
A spokeswoman for News International, the parent company of News Group Newspapers, said: “News International feels it is inappropriate to comment at this time.”
Responding to the claims, the Metropolitan Police said in a statement: “The MPS carried out an investigation into the alleged unlawful interception of telephone calls.
“Officers liaised closely with the Crown Prosecution Service. Two people were charged and subsequently convicted and jailed. We are not prepared to comment further.”
PR agent Max Clifford is another whose phone was allegedly hacked into, according to the Guardian. He said the claims raised “lots of serious questions”.
Clifford – who works with some of Britain’s best known celebrities – told the BBC: “If these allegations prove to be true, then it’s something that an awful lot of people are going to very unhappy about.”
He also asked: “Why has this just come out? According to the Guardian, it’s come from police sources.
“If the police had this information, why didn’t they act on it? There are lots of questions that need to be answered, serious questions.”
Former home secretary Charles Clarke said that the allegations in The Guardian raised serious questions for News International, the Conservatives, and the police.
“I think it is outrageous. I think we do need action immediately,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
“News International has to publish the full list of those that they have bugged, I think that David Cameron has to sack Andy Coulson because his denial is very narrow in the extreme. I think David Cameron himself has to be much clearer about the situation.
“I think that the Home Secretary should be asking the Chief Inspector of Constabulary for a full report about the police behaviour in this whole incident.”
Cameron, speaking outside his home in west London this morning, said: “It’s wrong for newspapers to breach people’s privacy with no justification.
“That is why Andy Coulson resigned as editor of the News of the World two-and-a-half years ago.
“Of course I knew about that resignation before offering him the job. But I believe in giving people a second chance.
“As director of communications for the Conservatives he does an excellent job in a proper, upright way at all times.”