David Cameron’s hopes of limiting the political damage from the telephone hacking affair suffered a setback yesterday as ministers were urged to order an independent inquiry into the actions of the Metropolitan Police.
Despite the resignation of Andy Coulson as the Downing Street director of communications, the spotlight was thrown back on to the links between Mr Cameron and Rupert Murdoch’s empire.
The Independent has learnt that James Murdoch, son of Rupert and chairman of News Corporation in Europe and Asia, attended a private dinner with Mr Cameron just days after the Prime Minister stripped Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat Business Secretary, of responsibility for the crucial decision on whether News Corp should be allowed to buy the 61 per cent of BSkyB it does not already own.
Mr Cameron and his wife Samantha were present at the dinner held at the home of Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International, in Churchill, Oxfordshire.
Cameron aides had previously argued that Ms Brooks was a constituent of the Prime Minister, who represents Witney in Oxfordshire. The disclosure that James Murdoch was present provoked calls last night for the Cabinet Secretary to intervene, amid claims that it raised questions about Mr Cameron’s judgement.
The highly sensitive decision on the takeover is now in the hands of Jeremy Hunt, the Tory Culture Secretary. (Mr Cable lost responsibility for media regulation after telling undercover reporters he had “declared war” on Rupert Murdoch.)
Mr Coulson quit as editor of Mr Murdoch’s News of the World in 2007 after the paper’s royal reporter admitted hacking royal phones. Although he insisted he had no knowledge of the practice, the affair continued to haunt him and he quit No 10 on Friday, admitting he could not do his 10 job properly.
Senior Tories had hoped Mr Coulson’s departure would turn the controversy into a media rather than political affair. Those hopes were dashed yesterday when The Independent on Sunday revealed that Gordon Brown has asked the Metropolitan Police whether he had been the victim of phone hacking while he was Chancellor.
Sources close to the former Prime Minister now believe the practice may have gone wider than the News of the World and may have extended to two other Murdoch papers – The Sun and The Sunday Times – and may have enabled his papers to obtain documents as well as to listen to voicemail messages.
Former aides of Mr Brown said he was “very worked up” about hacking. He possesses a long list of alleged targets and urged other politicians whose names were on it to pursue the matter with the police.
There is now intense scrutiny of the police’s limited original investigation into the hacking affair, with claims of a cover-up. Although the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is reviewing all the evidence and will hold talks with Scotland Yard this week, there are demands for this investigation to be handed to a different police force or to the Inspectorate of Constabulary.
Paul Farrelly, a Labour member of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, said: “They cannot be judge and jury in their own actions. In the past, the CPS has just done a cut and paste of the Met Police’s press releases on this matter. We must inject some independence into the review of how the Met Police shut it down and the CPS decisions on that.”
He is writing to the Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke and the Attorney General Dominic Grieve asking them to ensure an independent review.
John Whittingdale, Tory chairman of the Culture Committee, said it would be “extraordinary” if the Chancellor’s phone had been hacked into and that had not been fully investigated by the police. “I think there are some very serious questions for the police,” he said.
Chris Huhne, a Liberal Democrat Cabinet minister, said it was “ implausible" to claim the practice was confined to "one rogue reporter" at the News of the World. "I was rather surprised that the police seem to have accepted that story rather than investigating further," he said. “Why would the royal correspondent be interested in hacking the voicemails of [the Liberal Democrats’ deputy leader] Simon Hughes for example?"
Tom Watson, another Labour member of the select committee, has written to Sir Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, to ask him whether he was aware of the dinner attended by Mr Cameron, asking whether a civil servant was invited and whether minutes were taken.
"The idea that the Prime Minister was secretly wining and dining with two people so close to the bid is highly unusual,” he said. "In these situations, a minister would be advised to take a civil servant with him. This deal is worth a lot of money for News Corp if they get it and while it is ultimately Jeremy Hunt's decision, the Prime Minister is key to it too. In order to be able to defend the integrity of the decision, a civil servant should have been present."
Mark Lewis, a lawyer representing celebrities who believed they too were victims of phone hacking, has now said that he is preparing cases against other Fleet Street titles.
Mr Lewis is representing four clients. The Independent understands that one is a female soap star, another is a politician and a third is a journalist who believes their phone was hacked and a story stolen. The cases are against two newspapers, one of which is rumoured to be the Sunday Mirror.
It is thought that the cases against the other national newspapers came about after the actress was contacted by a police force – not the Metropolitan Police – and told that she may have been a victim of phone hacking.
Mr Lewis has now sent letters to the two newspapers concerned, outlining his clients’ complaints.
Last night he said: “The cases are at an early stage. The nature of the information meant that it could not have come from anywhere else.”
Mr Lewis also said that over the weekend he had been contacted by someone concerned that their phone had been hacked by one of the so-called “quality” newspapers, which, if true, would widen the scope of the scandal beyond the tabloids.
A spokesman for Trinity Mirror last night said that the company had not yet received a letter from Mr Lewis and added: “All of our journalists are under no illusion as to how they operate. That is under the press complaints commission code and within the criminal law.”
QUESTIONS FOR MURDOCH
* Did James Murdoch authorise the payment of £700,000 to Gordon Taylor, the head of the footballers' union, after his phone was hacked? And if so, why?
* Why did News International pay private investigator Glenn Mulcaire £80,000, and also pay its former royal editor Clive Goodman, after they were both convicted of illegally intercepting phone messages and jailed?
* How many people have received payments from the News of the World, or its parent companies, after threatening to reveal evidence of its journalists' involvement in illegal phone hacking?
* Did James Murdoch or Rebekah Brooks discuss the proposed News Corporation purchase of BSkyB with David Cameron during their dinner together at her house over Christmas?
* Was Andy Coulson, or any other more senior News International executive, aware of Glenn Mulcaire's £2,000-a-week payment? What services did they suppose Mulcaire was providing for that pay?
* What action will News International take against the suspended News of the World executive Ian Edmondson? Will the company hand over any and all new evidence of phone hacking to the Metropolitan Police?
* When will News International drop the defence that phone hacking was the work of a single "rogue" reporter?
* How much money has News International spent so far trying to limit the damage caused by illegal phone hacking by the News of the World?
* How many other celebrities and politicians does the company think were hacked by its employees?