Lawyers acting for public figures suing The News of the World over alleged phone hacking said yesterday that a trove of "lost" emails between senior executives could prove vital in securing damages and prompt new actions against the paper.
Detectives leading a new Scotland Yard inquiry which has promised to leave "no stone unturned" to discover the extent of unlawful voicemail hacking are expected to ask to see the messages between key figures at Rupert Murdoch's News International in the coming days in an evidence-gathering exercise.
The vast bank of data, which covers the 2005 and 2006 period when the NOTW was illegally listening to the messages of members of the royal household, was revealed after a senior executive at the Sunday tabloid told the trial of Scottish politician Tommy Sheridan that "lots of emails" had gone missing in a data transfer to India.
Enquiries by The Independent have established that far from being lost, the email bank is intact in the UK and contains a record of conversations between managers, reporters and others at News International, Mr Murdoch's British newspaper group.
The archive, believed to be held in the City of London, will be accessible to lawyers demanding disclosure of internal company documents relating to claims from alleged victims of phone hacking. Among the solicitors preparing requests to search the archive last night was Aamer Anwar, the lawyer representing Mr Sheridan.
Mark Lewis, the solicitor who won a £700,000 settlement for Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, indicated other litigants would be very interested in its contents. "It might be the ticking bomb," he said.
Mr Lewis added that the existence of the archive posed fresh questions about the seriousness and competence of the original police investigation: "If these documents existed from 2005-06 at the time of the police inquiry, what were the police looking at?"
Farooq Bajwa, the solicitor representing former MP George Galloway, said: "This unfortunately typifies the whole case. Information has had to be dragged out of News Corp which has pretended all this time that it was down to a rogue reporter. Every bit of information and every bit of progress on this case has had to be brought kicking and screaming from News Corp."
Mr Anwar said he expected any disclosures from the data to form part of an appeal against his client's conviction last week.
He said: "The revelation that apparently all those emails were stored in London rather than in Mumbai opens a whole can of worms."