Rupert Murdoch's entire stable of British newspapers was dragged into the phone hacking row yesterday when a former Labour minister told the House of Commons the scandal touched The Times, The Sunday Times and The Sun.
Tom Watson MP said during discussion of Mr Murdoch's BSkyB bid that he believed evidence existed that journalists employed on the Times titles had been involved in phone hacking and that their sister paper, The Sun, had printed a story possibly based on hacked conversations.
He also told MPs that the BBC had been bullied into delaying a Panorama programme on newspaper tactics – which he said involved "more sinister forms of illegal surveillance".
In the Lords, John Prescott, the former Deputy Prime Minister, urged the Government to delay a decision on Mr Murdoch's £7.8 billion BSkyB bid until the conclusion of the criminal investigation into his company's involvement in the illegal interception of calls.
Mr Watson's claims are the first time that The Times and Sunday Times have been named in the context of phone hacking, which has tarnished the reputation of Mr Murdoch's best-selling title, The News of the World.
Dozens of Metropolitan Police detectives are investigating whether a private eye working for the NOTW, Glenn Mulcaire, eavesdropped on the mobile phone messages of public figures beyond three Royal aides and five other individuals.
Speaking with the benefit of Parliamentary privilege, which allows MPs to comment without fear of legal claims, Mr Watson told the Commons: "I believe the evidence exists that shows journalists currently employed on The Times and Sunday Times were involved in phone hacking and that damaging revelations were printed in The Sun from information possibly collected by illegal hacking." He added: "We are told that the BBC have been bullied into delaying broadcasting an edition of Panorama that shows more sinister forms of illegal surveillance."
He asked Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who had just announced his intention not to refer the BSkyB bid to the Competition Commission: "If the Metropolitan Police show you this evidence, will you change your mind?" Mr Hunt replied that although hacking was "extremely serious", he could not involve himself in "a judicial process".
Minutes later, in an apparent reference to Mr Watson's claims, Lord Prescott – who has been told that he may have been targeted by Mr Mulcaire – raised the issue in the upper chamber. He asked the Coalition minister Baroness Rawlings: "Are you aware that the investigation into the Murdoch press phone hacking has been extended now to The Sunday Times? So the argument that it was simply one paper and one 'rogue' reporter is no longer true. It is a number of papers owned by the Murdoch press and a number of their employees who have been involved in withholding evidence and illegal practices."
A spokeswoman for the BBC denied it had delayed Panorama's transmission. "The BBC has not come under any external pressure to delay the programme and we will broadcast it when we are ready to do so," she said.
News International (NI) said: "We have no idea what he is talking about." In relation to Mr Watson's other claims, NI said: "We do not believe Tom Watson has any evidence to support these allegations."
A spokesperson added: "It is not a coincidence that he has made such cowardly and unsubstantiated claims under the cloak of parliamentary privilege. If he has any evidence, we urge him to provide it to us and we will take immediate action if proven."
Mr Watson later told The Independent: "I will share any platform or any TV studio with News International's Rebekah Brooks to discuss phone hacking and other criminality."
Prior to the exchanges, a leading lawyer accused the Metropolitan Police of failing to admit that there were thousands of potential victims of Mr Mulcaire because it wanted to conceal the inadequacy of its original investigation.
Mark Lewis, who brought one of the first civil claims against the NOTW, is suing Scotland Yard for libel over what he says is a damaging allegation that he misled MPs when he said a senior officer had told him the scandal involved 6,000 people.
Mr Lewis claims that a detective involved in the first Yard inquiry into the hacking activities of Mr Mulcaire, Detective Sergeant Mark Maberley, revealed the figure during a conversation in 2007 while he was pursuing a damages claim against the paper on behalf of footballers' union head, Gordon Taylor.
The officer has since denied through the Yard he gave the figure, saying that he was "wrongly quoted". Mr Lewis alleges the Yard knew from evidence seized from Mr Mulcaire's home that the number of victims "could easily run into the thousands", but at a pre-trial hearing yesterday, his skeleton argument said: "However, to admit this would have been to concede the inadequacy of the initial investigation."
Scotland Yard denies that it has defamed Mr Lewis and is applying for the libel claim to be struck out by the court.Reuse content