Hundreds of people whose voicemails might have been intercepted in an illegal trawl for celebrity gossip by the News of the World are likely to be contacted by police as part of a re-opened investigation into the long-running scandal.
An initial investigation back in 2005 blamed a rogue reporter at the Sunday tabloid and the private detective he hired for eavesdropping on the voicemail of celebrities and other public figures.
Police restricted their initial investigation to the reporter, Clive Goodman, and dodgy PI Glenn Mulcaire, who were convicted and jailed for illegal wiretapping offences in August 2006. Police insisted at the time, and for years afterwards, that only a small number of celebs were targeted.
That might have drawn a line under the affair but for a series of privacy lawsuits by public figures - including football players' union boss Gordon Taylor, publicist Max Clifford, actress Sienna Miller and others - which resulted in a series of payouts by News Group, publishers of the NotW. Neither party was supposed to talk about these payments, but The Guardian launched a dogged investigation, which prompted a fresh round of parliamentary and Press Complaint Commission hearings during 2009.
News Group stuck to the line that the phone "hacking" was the work of a rogue reporter, who acted without either the knowledge or consent of senior managers. That line finally unravelled last month after the paper sacked assistant editor Ian Edmondson, who had been implicated as commissioning the interception of the voicemails of Miller and her friends (including former partner Jude Law) in a privacy lawsuit.
Edmondson was a close colleague and confidant of Andy Coulson, NotW editor at the time of the scandal, who went on to become David Cameron's director of communication. Coulson resigned last month as Cameron's spin doctor in order to draw a line under the affair and stop the long running saga from becoming a distraction for the government.
Around the same time as Edmondson got the boot the Met Police re-opened an investigation into phone hacking at News of the World, more than four years after closing the book on the case and after turned down requests to review the case last year. A fresh team, from the specialist Crime Directorate and uninvolved with the initial investigation, has been assigned to the case, which was re-opened in response to new (unspecified) evidence.
The 'Operation Weeting' team is evaluating this evidence alongside materials obtained by the police in the initial investigation, leading them to conclude that some people were previously incorrectly informed that they were not the target of voicemail interception, as explained in a MPS statement (extract below).
Having begun an analysis of the documents seized in 2005 alongside the new evidence, the team have been able to make some links not previously identified. As a result, the team have also identified some individuals who were previously advised that there was little or no information held by the MPS relating to them within the case papers and exhibits and this is now being reviewed.
At this stage, there is no evidence to suggest that their voice mails were hacked but this will be an important and immediate new line of enquiry. As a result detectives are taking urgent steps to advise them of this development at the earliest opportunity.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers, leading the new investigation, said: "We will build on the previous commitment to all those victims whose phones we already have reasonable evidence to believe may have been hacked by establishing or renewing contact with them.
"With this new investigation we will be as open as we can be and will show them all the information we hold about them, while giving them the opportunity to tell us anything that may be of concern to them.
"Until I am satisfied that we have validated the data we are re-examining I am not prepared to discuss any of the numbers involved, but I intend to make this information public at the earliest opportunity."
Police had previously said around 3,000 mobile phone numbers featured in some way in papers seized during the investigation. Many came from handwritten notes seized from Mulcaire, and it's not clear how many were actually the target of voicemail interception or other hacking tactics.
Reading between the lines, it seems that police will now inform all these people that their numbers cropped up in the investigation and they might have been a victim of illegal wiretapping; a complete reversal of the position taken by the initial team who only informed a handful of confirmed victims and restricted their probe to messers Goodman and Mulcaire.
Critics, including former deputy prime minister John Prescott, a suspected victim of wiretapping, alleged that police restricted their inquiry in order not to upset the relationship between the paper and police. NotW regularly runs investigations, handing its dossier over to police at the end of probes, offering police a series of high-profile collars as a result.
Whether that close relationship had anything to do with the initial handling of the investigation remains unclear. It's also uncertain whether or not the re-opened investigation will lead to fresh charges, though charges against one or two former NotW staffers seem more than likely, especially since criticism against the police would be fierce if no further charges are filed. ®