The privacy watchdog, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), has launched an investigation into claims that vital emails between senior executives and journalists on the News of the World have been "lost" while being transported to India, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.
Experts fear the missing emails – on computer hard disk drives that have reportedly vanished – could have major implications for the multiple investigations into claims the newspaper was involved in widespread hacking into the phone messages of targets from the worlds of politics, royalty and entertainment.
The investigation will add to mounting pressure on Andy Coulson, press secretary to the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and a former editor of the News of the World. Coulson, who denies any knowledge of the hacking, resigned from his post after Clive Goodman, the paper's former royal correspondent, was convicted of hacking the phones of Prince William's aides.
The latest investigation comes just days after lawyers acting for the actress Sienna Miller lodged a document at the High Court in London, saying they had found new evidence that would justify bringing prosecutions against other journalists from the Rupert Murdoch-owned paper.
The loss of the emails was revealed during the perjury trial of the former Scottish Socialist Party leader Tommy Sheridan. Mr Sheridan claims he was targeted by the newspaper and that his personal phone records were hacked by a private investigator hired by the News of the World.
The former MSP, who is representing himself in court, accused Bob Bird, the Scottish editor of the News of the World, of failing – in defiance of a court order – to reveal internal company documents that would support his claims. Mr Bird claimed in court he had done his best but that "many emails had been lost when they were being moved to an archive in India".
Tom Watson, Labour MP for West Bromwich East, who is following the Sheridan trial closely, complained to the ICO that the loss of data was in breach of the Data Protection Act.
Under this legislation, personal data is not allowed to be transferred to a country that lacks an adequate level of protection. Mr Watson claims India has only basic provisions and so would not comply.
The revelations could add to the pressure on the Crown Prosecution Service to reopen the long-running News of the World phone-hacking case, after it announced earlier this month that there would be no further charges over the allegations.
The ICO confirmed that its head of enforcement is now investigating the complaint and would pursue it when the Sheridan trial finishes.
Mr Watson said yesterday: "When will this scandal ever stop? It has been admitted that key emails have been inadvertently lost. How many other pieces of information have News International managed to lose? Had the Metropolitan Police seized this electronic file when they did the original inquiry into phone-hacking, we wouldn't be in this position now."
The News of the World said yesterday: "We have received a request for clarification from the Information Commissioner and will be responding shortly."Reuse content