Met offers NOTW journalist a lifeline: turn supergrass against paper and you'll go free

Detectives approach former chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck in bid to secure vital evidence

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The Independent Online

The former chief reporter of the News of the World has been approached by Scotland Yard to give potentially vital evidence in the phone hacking scandal against his former employer.

Neville Thurlbeck, right, a key figure in the crisis that has engulfed Rupert Murdoch's News International (NI), told The Independent that detectives from a specialist Yard unit met him last week and asked him to consider turning "Queen's evidence" in return for possible immunity from prosecution.

The move represents a dramatic twist in Operation Weeting, the Metropolitan Police inquiry into voicemail interception at the now-defunct Sunday tabloid, suggesting that 11 months of investigation has led detectives to conclude that Mr Thurlbeck is more useful as a potential witness against senior figures in the Murdoch empire.

A total of 16 people, including Mr Thurlbeck, former NI chief executive Rebekah Brooks and former NOTW editor Andy Coulson, have been arrested on suspicion of taking part in a phone- hacking conspiracy at the title. But with many suspects bailed until next March, it is understood the investigation, which has so far uncovered the names of 5,800 possible victims and has at least 11,000 pages of evidence, still has a long way to run.

Mr Thurlbeck, who worked for 21 years as a reporter and a news executive on the NOTW, last night revealed he had rejected the proposal and believes he will be exonerated by police inquiries or as a result of any court proceedings.

The Yard declined to comment on Mr Thurlbeck's statement despite being provided with specific details of the specialist-witness unit from which officers had met him, he said, last Friday in central London. Mr Thurlbeck was arrested in April along with the NOTW's former news editor Ian Edmondson on suspicion of conspiring to unlawfully intercept mobile-phone messages.

Mr Thurlbeck said: "I have informed Scotland Yard that while I fully understand and respect the reason for their request of me to give evidence for the Crown in any prosecution arising from Operation Weeting, it is my opinion that a detailed and forensic inquiry into my working methods by what is a highly professional police unit will fully exonerate me. So... I have declined their offer."

Any move by Operation Weeting to secure a "supergrass" witness after 11 months of investigation will be seen as an attempt to fast-track the obtaining of evidence to establish how widespread the culture of hacking was inside the NOTW. Mr Thurlbeck, who worked under Ms Brooks and Mr Coulson while both were editors of the NOTW, has previously insisted that he took "no part" in voicemail interception despite his name being on the so-called "for Neville" email which contained transcripts of private messages left by the footballers' union boss, Gordon Taylor.

The disclosure of the email in 2008 proved for the first time that hacking was not restricted to a single "rogue" reporter at the NOTW and led to James Murdoch approving a £725,000 out-of-court settlement with Mr Taylor. But Mr Thurlbeck has consistently denied ever commissioning or receiving its contents and it is likely that the origins of the "for Neville" email are one of the areas in which he could be asked to give evidence.

It is understood that police made the approach to Mr Thurlbeck after officers seized evidence from his west London home, including a tape recording and a memo to former NOTW editor Colin Myler and the paper's legal manager Tom Crone in which the identity is revealed of the executive he believes is responsible for commissioning the hacking the phone of Mr Taylor.

The Independent understands that Mr Thurlbeck compiled a dossier of evidence which he submitted to Mr Myler and Mr Crone two years ago.