Hacking: senior News of the World pair arrested

Journalists bailed after questioning on suspicion of criminal conspiracy
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The Independent Online

The chief reporter and a recent senior executive of the News of the World yesterday became the first formal suspects in the new Scotland Yard investigation into phone-hacking tarnishing Britain's best-selling newspaper, after they were arrested for allegedly conspiring to access the voicemails of public figures.

Neville Thurlbeck and Ian Edmondson, were held for six hours after attending separate west London police stations by appointment while officers searched their homes for evidence that could implicate them in the deepening scandal.

In a turbulent day for Rupert Murdoch's News International, the two men became the first journalists to be arrested for phone-hacking in the five years since the NOTW's royal editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire were jailed for accessing the phone messages of aides to Prince William. Until recently the country's largest newspaper owner had insisted that hacking was restricted to a single "rogue" reporter.

The arrests of the two senior journalists came as the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, publicly contradicted evidence from John Yates, the acting second-in-command of Scotland Yard, by telling MPs that advice from prosecutors did not limit the scope of the heavily pilloried original police investigation that began in 2006.

Mr Starmer's evidence, described as "astonishing" by senior parliamentarian Keith Vaz, prompted calls for further scrutiny by MPs of the Yard's handling of the allegations against Britain's largest media group.

The scandal intensified last week when it emerged that the officer in charge of the 2006 inquiry, Andy Hayman, held a private dinner with unspecified NOTW staff prior to dawn raids being carried out on the homes of Goodman and Mulcaire.

Mr Murdoch's embattled chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, is now having to deal with allegations of wrongdoing against News International on several fronts.

The Independent understands that the company has applied for and been granted an extension to a deadline set by the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee to provide details of payments made by The Sun to police officers. The request from Mr Vaz followed evidence from Ms Brooks when she was editor of The Sun to MPs in 2003 in which she said: "We have paid police for information in the past."

She has now been given until the end of this month to provide details on how many officers were paid, the amounts they received and when the practice was halted.

The NOTW is fighting 14 civil damages claims brought by celebrities and public figures, ranging from the actress Sienna Miller to the football pundit Andy Gray, who claim they were the victims of hacking by Mulcaire on behalf of the Sunday newspaper.

Yesterday Ms Miller set a new precedent in the civil actions by winning a disclosure order against the mobile phone operator Vodafone for details of calls made by other people to her voicemails. The High Court order is likely to be followed by similar requests from fellow litigants.

Mr Thurlbeck, 50, and Mr Edmondson, 42, arrived at Kingston and Wimbledon police stations respectively yesterday morning in the first public flexing of investigative muscle by Operation Weeting, the new investigation which senior Yard officers have pledged will leave "no stone unturned" in its efforts to establish the true extent of phone-hacking at the NOTW.

Both journalists, who were arrested on suspicion of intercepting and conspiring to intercept voicemails, were at the heart of the paper's newsgathering operation at the time when Mulcaire is alleged to have been carrying out prolific interception of the phone messages of politicians, celebrities, public figures and private individuals.

Mr Thurlbeck has denied ever receiving or viewing an email entitled "transcript for Neville" containing the details of more than 30 messages hacked from the phones of the Professional Footballers' Association boss Gordon Taylor.

Mr Yates admitted last year that it "might have been better" if officers had interviewed Mr Thurlbeck about the email, which was described by MPs as a "strong indication both of additional lawbreaking and of the possible involvement of others" beyond Goodman in phone-hacking.

Mr Edmondson, who was one of former editor Andy Coulson's closest lieutenants, was dismissed from his post in January following the discovery of "significant new information" in emails. His dismissal prompted the third and latest Yard inquiry into the hacking saga.

Both journalists were released on police bail last night to a date in September. Mr Thurlbeck has not been suspended from his position at the NOTW. Last night, News International said it was continuing to "co-operate fully" with Operation Weeting, adding: "News International has consistently reiterated that it will not tolerate wrongdoing and is a committed to acting on evidence."

The Labour MP Tom Watson said that the arrests did not resolve questions about the Yard's handling of the scandal. "It won't be lost on Parliament that arrests were made on the day the DPP told MPs that he was investigating whether the Metropolitan Police could have prosecuted more people during the original inquiry," he said. "The new Met police inquiry team are clearly more thorough than their predecessors, but the recent arrests show why many MPs felt an outside force should take charge of the investigation."