The New York Times has refused to co-operate with British police looking into the allegations of phone-hacking it made last week, a senior officer said today.
Despite this assistant commissioner John Yates said the Metropolitan Police would press ahead with questioning former News of the World reporter Sean Hoare and consult with prosecutors over whether to reopen its investigation into the News of the World.
In interviews with the NYT and the BBC, Hoare claimed that eavesdropping on voicemail messages was widespread at the paper and known to then editor Andy Coulson – now David Cameron’s director of communications.
Hoare’s claims are denied by both the News International-owned newspaper and Coulson himself, who has offered to speak to police.
The News of the World also issued a statement accusing the New York Times of being motivated by commercial rivalry with its owner, News Corporation.
In an appearance before the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee today, Yates said he expected to see Coulson “at some stage”, but would not decide whether to take up his offer until after Hoare has been interviewed.
Officers wrote today to the NYT asking the paper to reconsider its decision not to hand over information, but Yates said he was “not hopeful”.
It was an article in the New York paper which revived the phone-hacking issue last week, three years after News of the World reporter Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire were jailed for illegally intercepting the voicemail messages of aides working for Princes William and Harry.
Yates today came under fierce questioning from MPs on the select committee over the police’s decision not to contact some 91 people – believed to include politicians and celebrities – whose voicemail PINs were discovered during the investigations into Goodman and Mulcaire.
He said that police or mobile phone service providers had contacted around 10 to 12 people in cases where they thought there was “the minutest possibility” that an attempt had been made to hack into their messages.
The assistant commissioner promised to speak to Labour MP Chris Bryant, who yesterday complained in the Commons chamber that he had been told he was on Mulcaire’s list, but police had done “absolutely nothing” about it.
Yates defended the initial police inquiry, telling MPs: “You may not believe it but I still think the investigation was a success, and if HMI (the Inspector of Constabulary) wants to come and have a look at it, I wouldn’t have a problem at all.”
The jailing of Goodman and Mulcaire had sent out a “very significant deterrent message” and the case had clarified the law relating to interception of communications, he said.
Yates acknowledged that there had been cases of police officers taking payments from newspapers for information, but said he regarded it as “reprehensible” and insisted it was not widespread.
He repeated his assurance that former deputy prime minister Lord Prescott’s mobile phone had not been hacked into and said there was no evidence that any MP’s phone had been tapped.
It was a “dangerous assumption” to believe that any particular individual named on lists seized during the police investigation was necessarily the victim of eavesdropping, he warned MPs.
Phone-hacking was very narrowly defined in legislation and was “very, very difficult to prove”, he said.
Leading counsel had advised police that obtaining a PIN without the owner’s permission was not in itself a crime, said Yates.
Committee chairman Keith Vaz told him that this would be a breach of the Data Protection Act.
Vaz urged Yates to contact all those whose details were found on Mulcaire’s lists, adding: “I think it is the feeling of this committee that there are some questions which remain to be answered.”
Yates stressed that it had not yet been decided whether to mount a fresh investigation in the light of Hoare’s allegations.
“We have always said we would consider new material,” he said. “In terms of Sean Hoare, that is new material and of course we will be seeing him at some stage in the near future.
“We will consider what he has to say and then consider the necessity of speaking to Mr Coulson, but at some stage I think we will be seeing Mr Coulson.
“We have spoken to the New York Times… and they have already indicated that they are not prepared to help us on the basis that it is journalistic privilege.
“I understand that, but a colleague has written to them today to see whether they are prepared to waive that privilege in these exceptional circumstances. I am not hopeful.”
He added: “If new material equals new evidence and warrants a new investigation, that is what we will do. I am absolutely clear about that.”
In a statement, the News of the World accused the New York Times of being motivated by commercial rivalry.
It said: “The News of the World repeatedly asked the New York Times to provide evidence to support their allegations and they were unable to do so.
“Indeed, the story they published contained no new credible evidence and relied heavily on anonymous sources, contrary to the paper’s own editorial guidelines.
“In so doing, they have undermined their own reputation and confirmed our suspicion their story was motivated by commercial rivalry.
“We reject absolutely any suggestion there was a widespread culture of wrongdoing at the News of the World.”