News International faces the threat of a new police inquiry into allegations of illegal newsgathering techniques after Scotland Yard revealed it is considering a full criminal inquiry into the activities of a disgraced private eye who supplied the News of the World.
The Yard rejected allegations that it has ignored a trove of evidence that Jonathan Rees may have targeted high-profile public figures including Tony Blair and Kate Middleton.
It said it was conducting a preliminary assessment of the documentation it holds before consulting with prosecutors about a further inquiry into the buying of illegally obtained information by newspapers.
Police are already conducting Operation Weeting, the inquiry into mobile phone voicemail hacking by private investigator Glenn Mulcaire on behalf of the News of the World.
And in April, the Yard said it was also conducting a "scoping exercise" to establish whether a statement to MPs made in 2003 by News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks that police had been paid for information now warranted an investigation.
In a letter to The Independent, Assistant Commissioner Cressida Dick revealed that officers from the Yard's Specialist Crime Directorate are now also conducting a "formal assessment" of material held about Rees, who was paid by newspapers including the NOTW and Daily Mirror.
Describing as "misleading" the claims that it is sitting on the documentation – spanning 750,000 pages gathered in five separate police inquiries sparked by the murder of Rees's business partner in 1987 – Ms Dick said: "Officers from within the Specialist Crime Directorate have been conducting a formal assessment process of the considerable information in their possession, to assess whether the available evidence would support further investigations.
"As in other cases, this ongoing process will, in due course, involve consultation with the Crown Prosecution Service and will result in a formal decision as to whether new criminal investigations will be commenced."
Her comments came as two alleged victims of Rees, former Labour Cabinet ministers Jack Straw and Peter Mandelson, called on the Metropolitan Police to disclose what information they hold on them. Mr Mandelson said: "It isn't acceptable to keep pointing the finger at one newspaper when clearly the use of unlawful means of investigating was, or is, widespread. This is a bigger issue than the wrongdoing of one rogue investigator and that's why this whole issue should be pursued more widely."
It is understood the team assessing allegations of breaches of privacy is linked to but separate from the 45 officers on the Weeting investigation.
A Yard spokeswoman added: "The team is working quickly and methodically. At this stage we are not in a position to give a timescale."
Labour MP Tom Watson told the Commons on Wednesday that documents held by the Yard suggested that Rees, 56 – whose company earned up to £150,000 a year in payments from the NOTW – was targeting Royals, senior politicians and terrorist informers on behalf of News International.
He alleged a cover-up by "powerful forces" and said Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers, in charge of the Specialist Crime Directorate, had written to him stating that the evidence may go beyond the remit of Weeting, which was specifically tasked with investigating phone hacking. Rees – who ran a network of corrupt informants including serving police officers through his company Southern Investigations Ltd, is alleged to have obtained confidential information through the use of virus-laden emails to steal data and through "blaggers" to trick banks into releasing details of customers' accounts.
An investigation by The Independent established that Rees – jailed for seven years in 2000 for attempting to frame an innocent woman – allegedly targeted figures including Mr Straw when he was Home Secretary; Lord Stevens, the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner; and Assistant Commissioner John Yates, Britain's most senior counter-terrorism officer.
A senior Labour MP said police were overwhelmed by the volume of information they hold. Chris Bryant said: "It confirms the dark arts were far more pervasive and far more a standard way of business in some newspapers than anyone wanted to let on." News International has denied Mr Watson's claims. Trinity Mirror, the publisher of the Daily Mirror, said some of its journalists had contacted Mr Rees's agency prior to 1999 but emphasised that its staff work within the law.
The BBC reported last night that it had seen leaked documents from a computer of Southern Investigations, showing Rees was employed by the Mirror in the late Nineties to look for information on people including Mr Blair's then director of communications Alastair Campbell, former rugby player Will Carling, Peter Mandelson and senior Bank of England figures. The BBC said the papers demonstrated no illegality and were among documents held by police.
What they said...
'I have written to the Metropolitan Police to ask exactly what evidence they have as this is the first I have heard of it.'
'Perhaps ... senior officers were more concerned with protecting their own relationships with News International... than doing their duty.'
'This is a bigger issue than the wrongdoing of one rogue investigator and that's why this whole issue should be pursued more widely.'
Spokesperson for Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge