News International hired a former police officer trained in surveillance by MI5 to follow two lawyers bringing phone hacking cases against the News of the World, it emerged last night.
Derek Webb, a covert operations expert who ran a private investigations company called Silent Shadow, said he was paid by the NOTW to carry out surveillance on Mark Lewis and Charlotte Harris to gather information as part of an attempt to discredit them.
The Independent reported in September that NI had sanctioned the use of private detectives to compile dossiers on the private lives of lawyers, including Mr Lewis and Ms Harris, who were at the time exerting unwelcome pressure on Rupert Murdoch's empire by suing for damages over voicemail interception. NI last night admitted that the two lawyers had been made the subject of "deeply inappropriate" surveillance on its behalf.
Mr Webb told the BBC's Newsnight that he had been instructed to carry out surveillance on the two solicitors in early 2010 at a time when there was no active police investigation into the NOTW and the paper was strongly maintaining its defence that phone hacking had been restricted to a single "rogue" reporter in the shape of disgraced former royal editor Clive Goodman.
After travelling to Manchester, where Mr Lewis and his then assistant Ms Harris were working, the surveillance expert allegedly followed the ex-wife of Mr Lewis and his teenage daughter as they visited a branch of Tesco and a garden centre, filming them before trailing them in a car.
Mr Lewis, who also represents the family of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, said last night: "In terms of my children, following my teenage daughter and videoing her is nothing short of sick. I don't know how News International or solicitors looking at that or holding that [footage] thought it was a proper thing to do. That seriously has got to be followed up and in investigated properly. It brings shame on anyone who was concerned."
It is understood that the NOTW wanted to try to show that Mr Lewis and Ms Harris were having a relationship. The allegation was however completely false.
A News International spokeswoman said: "News International's inquiries have led the company to believe that Mark Lewis and Charlotte Harris were subject to surveillance. While surveillance is not illegal, it was clearly deeply inappropriate in these circumstances. This action was not condoned by any current executive at the company."
NI 'hoped to protect Andy Coulson at No 10'
News International sought to protect its former employee Andy Coulson from bad publicity at last year's general election, it was claimed last night. Lawyers acting for NI in phone-hacking cases were instructed "not to do anything for three or four weeks" because of the "inevitable attacks" on David Cameron's press chief, according to Newsnight.