Lawyers acting for Rupert Murdoch's media empire News Corporation are to question executives at all of its London-based newspapers over their knowledge of phone hacking.
Journalists from The Sun, The Times and The Sunday Times will be questioned by a team led by the City law firm Linklaters and Lord Grabiner QC over the coming weeks, The Independent understands.
Those targeted for questioning have been told they should consider retaining their own legal representation. These lawyers will be paid for by the company, but staff have been alarmed by the implications. Any admission of wrongdoing could result in disciplinary action and evidence could be passed to the Met's phone-hacking inquiry. It is understood that some of those being lined up for questioning are relatively junior executives.
It is understood that a trawl of emails across News Corp's titles is also to be undertaken by its management and standards committee (MSC) to see if there is documentary evidence that phone hacking was used anywhere else within News International other than by the News Of The World.
The news comes as reports claim that the US justice department has sent a letter to NewsCorp requesting information about alleged payments made to British police.
Staff are concerned that the company is "turning in on itself" by questioning the integrity and loyalty of its employees. "It's all very well to launch an inquiry but this has the feel of a witch-hunt," said one. "Telling staff that they should get their own legal representation has gone down badly. They may be paying for it – but the signal it sends out is very worrying."
News Corp sources insisted that the process should be expected from any responsible corporate organisation and said it was entirely incorrect to speculate that any inappropriate activity on any other News International titles could be inferred from the review.
The MSC will report to Joel Klein, News Corp's executive vice-president, who in turn reports to Viet Dinh, an independent director and chairman of the company's nominating and corporate governance committee. A News International spokeswoman said: "As is widely known, a review of journalistic standards is under way at News International with Linklaters assisting in the process. This is part of a process that started a number of weeks ago and is under the ultimate control of the News Corp board."