Ian Burrell: Lawyers could be the winners in Fleet Street hacks' 'blagging' game

It was in Portcullis House that Rebekah Wade first let the cat out of the bag. "We have paid the police for information in the past," the editor of The Sun brazenly stated to MPs on the Culture, Media and Sport committee.

Since then, six years ago, the committee has been trying to uncover the extent of Wapping's culture of paying for confidential data. Meanwhile, Wade has been promoted to chief executive of Rupert Murdoch's News International, and her friend Andy Coulson has risen to communications director at the Conservative Party.

At the time of Wade's astonishing admission, Coulson was alongside her as editor of the News of the World, and promised MPs: "We have always operated within the code and within the law." Four years later he quit after Clive Goodman, his royal editor, was jailed for phone-tapping.

Yesterday the heat was back on both of them. Allegations that as many as 3,000 people were targeted (the police said only a "much smaller pool" had been tapped) by 31 journalists from the News of the World and The Sun mean that the same Commons committee will reopen its inquiries. Wade and Coulson will face the MPs anew.

The Fleet Street practice of paying investigators for the provision of ex-directory telephone numbers, criminal records and other confidential information has been widely documented. Known as "blagging", it was once widespread, but – officially – is no longer deployed. In 2006, after a raid on a firm of Hampshire private investigators, the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, published a report, What Price Privacy Now? It revealed that blagging was prevalent not only at Wapping, but at the Mirror titles, at The Guardian's sister title, The Observer, and women's magazines such as Best and Closer. The investigation firm's biggest clients were the Daily Mail, which made at least 952 requests for secret information, according to seized documents. The Independent was one of the few national newspapers where such activities did not take place, the report found.

The winners in all this could be the lawyers. The Guardian's claim that News International paid £700,000 out of court to Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, along with £300,000 to other victims of the royal editor's phone-hacking, raises the possibility of more civil claims from those targeted. The financial ramifications for Murdoch's empire could yet be enormous.