Journalists and newspaper executives involved in hacking politicians' telephones face the prospect of being hauled in front of the Commons to apologise – a punishment that MPs have not used for more than 50 years.
Yesterday, the Commons instructed its most powerful committee, the Standards and Privileges Committee, to investigate whether the phone-tapping or "blagging" of politicians' phone messages amounted to contempt of Parliament.
Witnesses who have previously refused to give evidence to parliamentary inquiries, including the two men jailed for phone-hacking in 2007 and the former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks, who is now chief executive of News International, may now be compelled to break their silence. The Commons even heard a call for Rupert Murdoch to be summoned to "explain his position".
Yesterday's unanimous decision to launch a parliamentary inquiry indicated a new mood among MPs, who feel they have let themselves be intimidated into turning a blind eye to some of the more unacceptable practices of journalists.
The Labour MP Chris Bryant urged his fellow MPs not to be "supine" and not to accept excuses from witnesses who did not want to appear in front of the inquiry. "We should become far more carnivorous in this," he said.
The deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, Simon Hughes, said that when he was interviewed by police about the hacking of his phone in 2006, he heard that other politicians who had been targeted had declined to give evidence. "I have no doubt that some people were not prepared to give evidence because they were afraid," he said.
David Cameron's chief spin doctor, Andy Coulson, was editor of the News of the World at a time when phone-hacking took place, though he has consistently denied condoning or knowing about phone-hacking. Downing Street said yesterday that the Prime Minister believes in Mr Coulson's innocence and is standing by him. But journalists who worked with Mr Coulson, including a former News of the World features executive, Paul McMullan, and a former reporter, Sean Hoare, claim that the practice was widespread and Mr Coulson knew it.
The Standards and Privileges Committee has the authority to summon some of the people involved who, unlike Mr Coulson, have refused to talk publicly about the affair. Mr Bryant urged them to use the office of the Serjeant-at-Arms to haul in witnesses who were reluctant to appear.
He also suggested that the committee uses its power to order anyone found guilty of contempt of Parliament to appear at the bar of the Commons to make a public apology. That power was last exercised in 1957, when the editor of the Sunday Express, John Junor, had to withdraw his allegation that MPs were evading petrol rationing.
Another Labour MP, Tom Watson, listed five people who he said should be called in front of the committee, none of whom gave evidence when the Commons last inquired into the affair, three years ago. They are: the private detective Glenn Mulcaire; the former royal correspondent of the News of the World Clive Goodman; Ms Brooks; Andy Hayman, who headed the original inquiry; and Greg Miskiw, a former assistant editor of the News of the World.
Mr Mulcaire and Mr Goodman were jailed in 2007 after admitting phone-hacking, and have refused to discuss the affair after receiving pay-offs from News International.
Mr Miskiw signed a contract to pay Mr Mulcaire £7,000 for information about Gordon Taylor, the former chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, whose phone Mr Mulcaire hacked. When asked to give evidence to a previous inquiry by the Commons Culture and Media Committee, he said he was ill.
Mr Watson told MPs: "Something very dark lurks in the evidence files of the Mulcaire case, and dark and mysterious forces are keeping it that way.
"They, the barons of the media with their red-topped assassins, are the biggest beasts in the modern jungle. They have no predators, they are untouchable, they laugh at the law, they sneer at Parliament, they have the power to hurt us and they do with gusto and precision. We are afraid, and if we oppose this resolution it is our shame.
"The most powerful people in the land – prime ministers, ministers and MPs of every party – are guilty in their own way of perpetuating a media culture that allows the characters of the decent to be traduced out of casual malice, for money, for spite, for sport, for any reason they like. And if we reject this resolution, we will be guilty of letting it happen."
In a statement, the News of the World said: "This matter, which largely relates to alleged behaviour five years ago, has become intensely partisan... The News of the World will investigate any allegation of wrongdoing when presented with evidence. As we have always made clear, we have a zero-tolerance approach to wrongdoing and will take swift and decisive action if we have proof."
MPs would like to talk to...
The most high-profile of the News International "refuseniks" who failed to appear before a Commons Culture and Media Committee inquiry into phone-hacking in 2007, Brooks is a previous editor of The Sun and the News of the World (NOTW). She is now chief executive of News International and is likely to be called before the new Standards and Privileges Committee investigation.
The former head of news and assistant editor of the NOTW signed a contract with the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire in 2005 relating to a story about Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association. Mr Miskiw said he was too ill to attend the 2007 hearings of the Media Committee, which found the contract should have been investigated. Very likely to be called.
The head of communications at Downing Street and former NOTW editor has consistently denied knowledge of intercepting voicemails. Despite giving testimony in 2007, he is likely to be called to answer new allegations.
The former royal correspondent of NOTW was sentenced to four months for intercepting phone messages. Like Mr Mulcaire, he signed a gagging deal with the NOTW. He refused to appear before the Commons Media Committee.
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