News International executives knew staff at the News of the World were paying corrupt royal protection officers for information on the Royal Family, but withheld it from police investigators for nearly four years, it was claimed yesterday.
An internal investigation, held in 2007, allegedly found a bodyguard from the elite Royal Protection Command had taken sums of up to £1,000 a time for phone numbers and tips on the whereabouts of the Queen, Prince Philip and their closest aides.
But despite what one former Met commander branded the "biggest breach of national security in living memory", it was kept secret from the Yard until last month. The details were unearthed only when other executives discovered emails during a fresh inquiry into the prevalence of phone hacking on 20 June this year.
One of the emails, disclosed by the BBC, reveals the newspaper's disgraced royal editor, Clive Goodman, requesting cash from the then-editor, Andy Coulson, to buy a "Green Book" containing a trove of telephone numbers for the Royal Family and all their staff. The numbers could then have been used to hack phones.
The email implied that a senior member of the royal protection team had stolen the directory – apparently with "secure" stamped on the cover – and was prepared to sell it to Goodman for £1,000. The BBC said the email suggested that it wasn't the first time the News of the World had paid royal bodyguards – who number about 400 – for access to the book.
Goodman, 53, and Mr Coulson, 43, were arrested on Friday and bailed until October on suspicion of bribing police officers. The Met's Assistant Commissioner, John Yates, has promised that any police found to have been paid cash for stories would be jailed.
But the revelations pile further pressure on the Government and the Met to smoke out the officers responsible for the leaks and restore falling public confidence in Britain's largest force.
John O'Connor, the former commander of the Flying Squad at the Yard, described it as the worst betrayal of trust he had seen and called for a "clear-out" of Royal Protection Command management. "I am absolutely horrified," he told The Independent. "It's about the worst betrayal there could ever be and the worst form of corruption I've ever heard of.
"Royal protection officers have one of the most privileged jobs in the force... They are privy to a lot of highly sensitive information about the sovereign and the sovereign's family and that's being traded off for a few quid."