Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of Rupert Murdoch's News International, said yesterday she has no knowledge of payments to police made while she was editor of The Sun after previously telling MPs that cash had been paid by journalists for information.
In a letter to the Common's Home Affairs Select Committee, Ms Brooks insisted she had been speaking generally about the newspaper industry when in 2003 she told MPs: "We have paid the police for information in the past."
Mr Murdoch's key lieutenant, who is in charge of News International's attempts to draw a line under the spiralling phone hacking scandal, said she had not intended to give the impression that she knew of "specific cases" where payments had been made.
Ms Brooks, who previously edited The Sun and the News of the World (NOTW), was forced to revisit her testimony to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee eight years ago when Labour MP Keith Vaz wrote to her last month, asking her to specify how many officers were paid while she was in charge of the daily paper, how much was paid and when the practice ceased.
On the day her response was published, Britain's biggest newspaper group revealed it had written to nine more claimants asking for evidence that their voicemails had been intercepted, potentially preparing the path for further admissions by the firm.
In a dramatic change to its previous stance, News International last week said it would make apologies in eight different complaints of voicemail interception against the NOTW, including a case brought by former Cabinet minister Tessa Jowell. It said it was also setting up a compensation scheme to settle new damages claims from potential victims of private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, who worked on contract for the NOTW.
Ms Brooks, whose employer "totally refutes" any suggestion she knew about phone hacking while she was in charge of the Sunday paper, appeared alongside then NOTW editor Andy Coulson before the DCMS Select Committee in 2003 and was asked a general question about whether "either of your newspapers" had paid private investigators or paid police.
After confirming that police had been paid for information in the past, she was asked if it would happen in the future and responded: "It depends." Ms Brooks was given extra time by the Home Affairs committee to supply details of any payments.
Writing to Mr Vaz, who is chairman of the committee, Ms Brooks replied yesterday: "As can be seen from the transcript, I was responding to a specific line of questioning on how newspapers get information. My intention was simply to comment generally on the widely held belief that payments had been made in the past to police officers. If, in doing so, I gave the impression that I had knowledge of any specific cases, I can assure you that this was not my intention."
Last night Chris Bryant, the Labour MP who asked Ms Brooks the original question in 2003, said: "We were gobsmacked at the time by how direct Rebekah Brooks had been. Now I am completely gobsmacked again."
News International continued its efforts to deal with phone hacking cases by saying its lawyers would look at responses from the nine claimants and decide whether to offer settlements. Sources said the approach to the nine "teed-up" the possibility of further admissions.
It was reported last night that detectives were planning to question Ms Brooks as part of Operation Weeting, the new investigation into NOTW phone hacking. The Guardian also reported that Ms Brooks’s telephone was tapped by Scotland Yard in 2004 as part of an inquiry into allegations the NOTW was paying bribes to officers. It was reported that the police found no evidence of any offence being committed.