Allegations of further phone tapping at Britain’s best-selling Sunday newspaper were dismissed today by the industry’s watchdog.
The Guardian sparked a political storm after claiming News Group Newspapers, which publishes titles including the News of the World, paid out more than £1 million to settle cases threatening to reveal evidence of telephone hacking.
But, after reviewing evidence, the Press Complaints Commission said there were no signs of tapping by journalists at the Sunday paper beyond that had already been admitted and nothing to suggest the commission was mislead during an earlier investigation, in 2007, into the affair.
News of the World’s former royal editor, Clive Goodman, and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, were jailed in 2007 after admitting hacking into the private voicemails of royal aides and celebrities.
The News of the World and its publisher have always denied anyone other than Goodman and Mulcaire were involved in hacking.
The PCC report concluded: “Despite the manner in which the Guardian’s allegations were treated in some quarters – as if they related to current or recent activity – there is no evidence that the practice of phone message tapping is ongoing.
“The Commission is satisfied that – so far as it is possible to tell – its work aimed at improving the integrity of undercover journalism has played its part in raising standards in this area.”
The Guardian branded the PCC’s findings “complacent”, saying the watchdog “does not have the ability, the budget or the procedures to conduct its own investigations”.
Clive Goodman, the News of the World’s former royal editor, and investigator Glenn Mulcaire were sent to prison in 2007 for plotting to access royal aides’ voicemails, prompting Goodman to be sacked.
The watchdog’s latest inquiry focused on whether it was misled by the News of the World during its investigation into the original scandal and whether there was any evidence that phone message hacking had been ongoing since 2007.
The PCC said the Guardian was “performing a perfectly legitimate function in further scrutinising activity at the paper, and it had produced one new significant fact in its revelation that the News of the World had privately settled a legal action brought by Professional Footballers’ Association chief Gordon Taylor for a large amount of money.”
But the report added: “The PCC has seen no new evidence to suggest that the practice of phone message tapping was undertaken by others beyond Goodman and Mulcaire, or evidence that News of the World executives knew about Goodman and Mulcaire’s activities.”
There was “nothing to suggest that the PCC was materially misled during its 2007 inquiry”, the PCC report added.
The report added: “Indeed, having reviewed the matter, the Commission could not help but conclude that the Guardian’s stories did not quite live up to the dramatic billing they were initially given.
“Perhaps this was because the sources could not be tested; or because Nick Davies was unable to shed further light on the suggestions of a broader conspiracy at the newspaper; or because there was significant evidence to the contrary from the police; or because so much of the information was old and had already appeared in the public domain (or a combination of these factors).
“Whatever the reason, there did not seem to be anything concrete to support the implication that there had been a hitherto concealed criminal conspiracy at the News of the World to intrude into people’s privacy.”
A host of inquiries were launched after the Guardian claimed MPs from all three parties, including former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and Cabinet minister Tessa Jowell were among the targets of alleged phone taps.
It quoted sources saying police officers found evidence of News Group staff using private investigators who had hacked into “thousands” of mobile phones.
One of the settlements, totalling £700,000 in legal costs and damages, involved legal action brought by Taylor, the newspaper said.
The report added: “The Commission has not lost sight of the fact that the genesis of all this activity was the deplorable, illegal and unethical behaviour of two people working for the News of the World in 2006.”
In praising the Guardian in revealing the settlement action brought by Taylor, it continued: “Indeed, such scrutiny by the media – taken with the activities of the PCC, Select Committee, Information Commissioner and others – will inevitably help prevent abuses by journalists.
“Neither should it be forgotten, however, that in presenting its story the Guardian too had obligations under the code requiring it to take care not to publish distorted or misleading information.”
The statement from the Guardian responded: “The report confirms the central allegation made by the Guardian and has not produced any independent evidence of its own to contradict a single fact in our coverage.
“Doubtless because of its restricted powers, the PCC has, unlike Nick Davies, not spoken to a single person involved in the widespread past practice of phone hacking, limiting its own original inquiries to an exchange of letters with someone who was not even at the News of the World at the time of the hacking.
“Top people in the military, police, government and royal household were warned that their messages might have been intercepted by private detectives working for newspapers.
“But the only people to have seriously inquired into any of this have been the police, lawyers, MPs, the Information Commissioner and reporters, including Nick Davies.
“If the press wants self-regulation it cannot allow external bodies to do the real work of investigation and regulation.”
The News of the World said it would not be commenting on the PCC’s findings.