Media giant News International, owner of the defunct News of the World, said it was “deeply inappropriate” that the paper hired a private investigator to spy on lawyers representing phone-hacking victims.
High-profile solicitors Mark Lewis and Charlotte Harris were tailed by private investigator Derek Webb, who ran a private investigations firm called Silent Shadow, in a “fishing exercise”.
A News International spokesman said: “News International’s inquiries have led the company to believe that Mark Lewis and Charlotte Harris were subject to surveillance.
“While surveillance is not illegal, it was clearly deeply inappropriate in these circumstances. This action was not condoned by any current executive at the company.”
Lewis represented, among others, the family of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler whose mobile phone was hacked by the NotW when she vanished in 2002.
Harris acts for several people who have complained of their phones being hacked, including football agent Sky Andrew.
Lewis condemned the spying – which included following and filming of his former wife and children.
He said: “It’s disgraceful. No father wants his child surveyed – this is wrong on so many levels. It thoroughly undermines any notion of fair play.
“I am sure they were doing it in order to stop me and Charlotte Harris representing our clients. It was undoubtedly a fishing exercise.”
The private investigator told the BBC he was owed compensation from the News of the World for his loyalty following eight years of service, but he had not received any.
Webb, whose background is in police surveillance and who reportedly once attended an MI5 training course, said he was commissioned by the paper to carry out surveillance on Lewis and his former assistant Harris early last year when James Murdoch was executive chairman of News International.
He was paid to go to Manchester where the two solicitors were based.
Tom Watson, Labour MP who sits on the Commons’ culture select committee investigating phone hacking, told Newsnight the newspaper hired the private investigator in a bid to “besmirch” the victims’ lawyers.
He said: “I think it shows an utterly relentless and ruthless organisation, clearly highly politicised and who would stop at nothing to try and cover this case up.
“It’s yet another revelation that I think will shock people when they get to know what it means.”
Murdoch is due before the committee again on Thursday.
“He’s got some very serious questions to answer,” said Mr Watson, “because his original testimony has not just been contradicted by the former editor of the News of the World but it’s been contradicted by Tom Crone, the in-house lawyer, and I am sure we will want to go into great detail about how his recollection of events differs to a number of other people who work for him.”
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