Sir Paul Stephenson, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, dined privately with senior executives at the News of the World seven times over a four-year period during which the force turned down calls for the heavily criticised investigation into phone hacking to be reopened.
Following a demand that it disclose its contacts with Rupert Murdoch's News International, Scotland Yard revealed that senior officers met NOTW editors 13 times between 2006 and 2010 in the aftermath of the arrest of a reporter for phone hacking. Almost half of the meetings were between Sir Paul, now Britain's most senior police officer, and an executive at the Sunday newspaper, deputy editor Neil Wallis.
The disclosure prompted calls for the force to explain why meetings were allowed to take place when it later transpired it had failed to investigate the full extent of the scandal.
Dee Doocey, a Lib Dem member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, branded the contacts "extraordinary" and indicated she would raise them at a meeting of the watchdog body tomorrow. She said: "Imagine the outcry there would be if the Commissioner was seen dining with a member of the public who was the subject of a police investigation."
The closeness of the relationship between Scotland Yard and the NOTW has been repeatedly raised by critics of the original police inquiry into the activities of private investigator Glenn Mulcaire and royal editor Clive Goodman, who were jailed in January 2007 for making 609 calls to the voicemails of royal aides.
Despite the discovery by detectives of 4,332 names, 2,978 mobile phone numbers and 91 PIN codes at Mulcaire's home, no one was interviewed at the NOTW beyond Goodman. The paper's editor, Andy Coulson, resigned in 2007, saying he bore ultimate responsibility for the scandal.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers, who is in charge of the new investigation launched last month, acknowledged the original inquiry had not gone far enough last month when she told John Prescott she was "not satisfied" with its work. Lord Prescott is one of about 20 people who have been informed they may have been a target despite being previously told there was little or no such evidence.
The police said there was nothing unusual in senior officers dining with editors but declined to detail meetings with other titles over the same period which would reveal if contact with the Sunday tabloid was unusually frequent. A spokeswoman said: "Senior officers from the Metropolitan Police meet representatives from a wide range of media as a necessary part of their roles."
The meetings began with a dinner between Sir Paul, his head of press Dick Fedorcio and Mr Wallis in September 2006 – a month after counter-terrorism officers arrested Mulcaire and Goodman. They became more frequent in 2008 and 2009 with eight private dinners and social engagements, including an invitation for Sir Paul to attend the News Corporation summer party two years ago. Sir Paul also attended a private dinner that month with Mr Wallis, who was appointed Mr Coulson's deputy in 2003.
In July 2009, John Yates, now Deputy Commissioner, refused to reopen the criminal investigation into hacking despite revelations by The Guardian that "thousands" of mobile phones may been targeted and that more than £1m had been paid to settle cases out of court. Four months later Mr Yates had dinner with the NOTW's editor, Colin Myler.
It is not known if the phone-hacking allegations were discussed at any of the meetings. Ms Doocey said: "I find it quite extraordinary that when allegations about illegal phone hacking were still unresolved the Commissioner thought it was appropriate to be regularly dining with the News of the World and News Corporation."
News International said: "We never comment on what was discussed at private dinners but we would like to ask The Independent how many times the editor or senior staff met with senior policemen during the same period?" Mr Wallis, who left the NOTW in 2009, made no comment.