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Inquiry begun on hacking cases at Murdoch papers

British police will look into a report that a News Corp. Murdoch subsidiary hacked into cell phone messages. (From The New York Times)

LONDON--Britain's most senior police officer said Thursday he had ordered a preliminary inquiry into reports by The Guardian newspaper that Rupert Murdoch's British newspaper subsidiary paid about $1.6 million to settle court cases involving allegations that its reporters worked with private investigators to hack into the cell phone messages of numerous public figures.

Among those whose cell phones were tapped or hacked into were the former deputy prime minister and at least one other cabinet minister, The Guardian reported.

The Guardian's report was denied by Murdoch, whose News Corp. owns Fox Broadcasting in the United States as well as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Post. Bloomberg News quoted Murdoch as saying on Wednesday that he was not aware of any payments made to settle legal cases in which the company's reporters in Britain might have been involved in criminal activity.

"If that had happened, I would know about it," he said.

In response to The Guardian's disclosures, an official British information regulator said Thursday it had identified 31 reporters from two newspapers in Murdoch's business empire--along with many other journalists from other news organizations owned by other companies--who had been found in an inquiry to have obtained personal data acquired unlawfully. The results of that inquiry were published in 2006 and the specific information concerning the two Murdoch newspapers was made known in 2008, Britain's Information Commissioner's Office said in a statement on its Web site.

On Thursday, Sir Paul Stephenson, the head of Scotland Yard, said he had assigned an assistant commissioner, John Yates, to "establish the facts" about the case "and look into the detail," according to the Press Association news agency, quoting Sky News, which is also part of Murdoch's media empire.

"I think we have got a track record of doing exactly what we are supposed to do," Stephenson was quoted as saying. "If we need to investigate, we will investigate. We will do the right thing and do what we have to do to investigate crime wherever it exists."

Yates is a senior officer named in April as the head of counterterrorism at Scotland Yard. He achieved prominence earlier when he conducted a lengthy, but inconclusive, inquiry into allegations that the ruling Labor party traded honors for political donations. The Guardian cited an unnamed "senior source" at Scotland Yard as saying that staff members at News International, the Murdoch subsidiary that owns four major newspapers in Britain, including The Times of London, The Sunday Times and two tabloids, The News of the World and The Sun, had used private investigators to hack into "thousands" of cell phones to obtain confidential personal data, including tax records, social security files, bank statements and itemized telephone bills. It cited another source "with knowledge of the police findings" as saying that the investigators had tapped "two or three thousand" cell phones.

The Guardian article, citing those sources, said that the targets of the hacking included John Prescott, who was deputy to former Prime Minister Tony Blair, and a cabinet member, Tessa Jowell, as well as lawmakers from all three of Britain's major political parties. Accessing stored phone messages covertly is illegal in Britain, except for the police or intelligence agencies acting with a warrant.

"I find it staggering that there could be a list known to the police of people who had their phone tapped," said Prescott on Thursday. "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 Scotland Yard files also showed that the newspapers had used private investigators to approach government agencies, banks, phone companies and other agencies that, the paper said, were conned into handing over confidential information on politicians, actors, athletes, musicians and television presenters, all of whom are named in the files. The Guardian said the files named 31 reporters working for The News of the World and The Sun in connection with the operation.

In the past few months, Britain has been rocked by scandals related to the use of expense accounts by members of Parliament, but The Guardian did not explain how or if the information it obtained was used, or if it had any relation to the scandals.

The Guardian article caused an immediate uproar, with demands from politicians and others for the government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown to order a police investigation and to explain why earlier police inquiries had not resulted in any action against the Murdoch-owned papers.

"A very big warning bell"
Simon Hughes, a prominent lawmaker for the Liberal Democrats, an opposition party, who was among those named by the paper as having had their cell phone messages tapped, said that if The Guardian's story was accurate, those responsible should be "severely punished." He told the BBC that The Guardian's revelations amounted to "a very big warning bell" of the damage that could be done by exploiting the possibilities of "the new data-centered age."

The Guardian cited no sources for its claim that News International, the Murdoch subsidiary, had paid 1 million pounds, about $1.6 million, in damages and legal costs to three people involved in professional soccer in Britain, including about $1.1 million to Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association.

The Guardian said the financial settlements in Britain were accompanied by clauses that prevented the people receiving the money from speaking about the cases. Such confidentiality clauses are common in many settlements. It said the settlements arose from disclosures that emerged from a trial of two private investigators working for the Murdoch-owned News of the World who served brief prison terms after being convicted in 2007 for hacking into cell phone messages.

One of the men convicted, Clive Goodman, was found to have accessed more than 600 messages on cell phones used by members of the royal family. The other man, Glenn Mulcaire, a former professional soccer player, admitted that he had hacked into the cell phone of Taylor, head of the soccer association, as well as those of the model Elle Macpherson and Max Clifford, a public relations agent.

In documents submitted to the High Court in London during the trial of Goodman and Mulcaire, executives of News International said The News of the World's editors and reporters had not been involved in any way in the phone tapping.

But the controversy stirred by The Guardian could reach into the highest ranks of Murdoch's empire. Several senior executives at News International or The News of the World were named by The Guardian as having denied knowledge of the tapping during the Goodman-Mulcaire trials.

The Information Commissioner's Office, an independent body responsible for regulating data protection and freedom of information issues, recalled in its statement issued Thursday that in 2008 it had been obliged by a court order to provide Taylor's lawyers with information that 31 journalists from The News of the World and The Sun "acquired people's personal information" through a practice called "blagging."

A spokesman for the office, who declined to be identified by name under its rules, said blagging was "the illegal trade in personal information obtained by conning people" and was thus separate from the newest allegations in The Guardian about hacking into cell phone messages.

In a series of reports issued in 2006, the Information Commissioner's Office gave examples of a "blagger training manual" to help tricksters obtain information by posing as officials from telephone or rail companies.

The reports said an investigation codenamed Operation Motorman had shown that a total of 305 journalists from 32 newspapers and magazines had bought confidential personal information acquired illegally. The list of news organizations included many non-Murdoch publications such as The Daily Mail, The Daily Mirror and others.

This story was written by John F. Burns, who reported from London, and by Alan Cowell, from Paris.