News International yesterday suffered a serious blow to its attempts to limit the phone-hacking scandal to events five years ago when it emerged that the News of the World is being accused of trying to access the voicemails of a celebrity within the last 12 months.
Court documents made public for the first time show that Kelly Hoppen, an interior designer and stepmother of the actress Sienna Miller, has lodged a claim against the Sunday paper and one of its reporters, Dan Evans, for "accessing or attempting to access her voicemail messages between June 2009 and March 2010".
The allegation was revealed as Tessa Jowell, the shadow Cabinet Officer minister, added to suspicions that hacking is not a historic problem by calling in Scotland Yard to investigate if an attempt had been made to hack into her phone messages as recently as last week.
Ms Hoppen's accusation, which is strongly denied by the NOTW and Mr Evans, is particularly embarrassing for Rupert Murdoch's newspaper group because it covers a period long after 2005 and 2006 when hacking was taking place which led to the jailing of the tabloid's royal editor, Clive Goodman, and the private detective Glenn Mulcaire for illegally listening to messages on the phones of aides to Prince William.
News International had insisted until this week that any hacking was limited to Mr Goodman and that procedures had been tightened by the current editor of the NOTW, Colin Myler, to ensure that the practice was stamped out. Mr Evans, who worked in the paper's features department, was suspended last April in relation to previously unspecified phone-hacking claims.
A Cabinet minister was scathing last night over the past police response to phone-hacking allegations. Chris Huhne, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, told BBC1's Question Time: "The police should have been more inquisitorial about the evidence they picked up." The Liberal Democrat minister disclosed that in opposition he had warned Sir Paul Stephenson, Met police commissioner, and John Yates, assistant commissioner, they were having "the wool pulled over their eyes" by News International's claim that hacking was the work of a "rogue reporter".
The company's single rogue reporter defence unravelled spectacularly on Wednesday when it was announced that the NOTW's head of news, Ian Edmondson, had been sacked following the discovery of emails which could link him to the activities of Mulcaire. Scotland Yard yesterday vowed to leave "no stone unturned" in a new investigation into the claims.
The sense of crisis surrounding News International deepened when the television star Leslie Ash and her husband, former footballer Lee Chapman, became the latest public figures to announce they were considering legal action against the NOTW over suspicions that their voicemails, and those of their children, were eavesdropped in 2006.
Ms Jowell, the former Culture Secretary, asked police to investigate last week after she received a warning from her mobile phone provider, Vodafone, that there had been an unauthorised attempt to listen to her messages.
The senior Labour MP, who was told previously by police investigating the NOTW hacking claims that her voicemail was unlawfully accessed on 29 occasions in May 2006 alone, said she had confirmed to officers that she had received "handbag" calls last week. Such silent calls are taken as an indication that an attempt to hack is under way.
Ms Jowell, who has hired lawyers over the issue of phone hacking, said she was unsure whether the call was "sinister" or an accident, but called for a "root-and-branch" review by the newspaper industry to stamp out the practice.
The allegation from Ms Hoppen has been known in Wapping since at least last April when Mr Evans was suspended. But it only came to light yesterday when a High Court document outlining her claims was made public.
The 50-year-old designer, whose clients include the Beckhams and who had a well-publicised relationship with the footballer Sol Campbell, won a court order requiring her telephone company, Vodafone, to release mobile phone numbers used to access her voicemail. Her claim alleges that Mr Evans, who had penned a series of showbiz exclusives since arriving at the NOTW in 2005, was responsible for the hacking.
It is understood that the journalist, who remains suspended, claims he phoned Ms Hoppen's number for legitimate reasons but accidentally accessed her voicemail when the keys on his handset jammed. In a statement, the NOTW said: "We have carried out an extensive investigation led by a team of independent forensic specialists and we have found no evidence whatsoever to support this allegation."
Phone hacking in the Press
Yesterday's events at News International got mixed coverage in the national papers, as these figures show...
The Mirror: 0 words
The Sun: 1 article: 41 words.
The Express: 2 article: 635 words
The Daily Mail: 1 article: 701 words
The Times: 1 article: 741 words
The Daily Telegraph: 4 articles: 1,892 words
The Financial Times: 4 articles: 1,936 words
The Independent: 3 articles: 1,936 words
The Guardian: 8 pieces: 4,703 wordsReuse content