Minister embroiled in hacking row over voicemail messages

The controversy over the News of the World is re-opened with new claims about the then media minister and Boris Johnson – and now footballer Sol Campbell is contacting the police

James Hanning,Matthew Bell
Sunday 06 December 2009 01:00

The Government has been asked to confirm that the voicemail messages of a cabinet minister were the subject of attempts at illegal hacking.

The Liberal Democrat MP Chris Huhne has tabled a question in the House of Commons asking the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to admit that an investigator working for the News of the World eavesdropped on messages left on the mobile phone of Tessa Jowell when she was Secretary of State at the DCMS. In January 2007, Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator, and Clive Goodman, the News of the World's former royal reporter, were convicted of hacking into the voicemails of Princes William and Harry, but News International has always maintained these were rogue episodes.

Mr Huhne's question asks Ben Bradshaw, the current incumbent at the DCMS, "what discussions [his] predecessor had in 2006 with the Metropolitan Police regarding their inquiry into the hacking of her mobile telephone by Glenn Mulcaire on behalf of the News of the World newspaper, and to inquire what assistance, if any, was given". It builds on suspicions that illegal activity was more widespread at the paper than has hitherto been admitted. During the trial, the names of five other public figures were cited, but suspicions have persisted that the police had evidence of further hacking, including that of government ministers.

Speaking to The Independent on Sunday last night, Mr Huhne said: "I believe there has been much more hacking of phones beyond the hacking of royal mobiles, for which Goodman and Mulcaire were convicted. Ministers should come forward if they have been told that it is likely their phones have been hacked. The NoW has always said this was a bad apple in the newsroom, but if hacking is proved to have extended to such a senior victim, it would suggest this must have been known at the highest level of the newspaper."

At the time of the hacking, Ms Jowell's private life was the subject of press scrutiny because her husband, David Mills, was under investigation for having accepted a bribe from the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi. The suggestion that the cabinet minister with responsibility for the media might have been unlawfully scrutinised by one of its outlets would mark a new departure in the story. Ms Jowell has declined to comment.

The possibility of so senior a figure having her voicemails intercepted will throw further attention on to David Cameron's head of communications, Andy Coulson, who was editor of the News of the World at the relevant time. Mr Coulson has told the Commons culture, media and sport select committee that he knew nothing about any illegal activity. Indeed, there is evidence that his own mobile phone was hacked.

In a further development, the footballer Sol Campbell has instructed his solicitor to contact the police in connection with possible hacking of his voicemails during the period when Mulcaire was invoicing the News of the World for his services. Campbell was the subject of much media scrutiny during that period, partly over his personal relationships and partly because he aroused discussion when he substituted himself at halftime in a Premiership game. He believes there is evidence that his privacy may have been breached and has set in train the process under which the police are obliged to inform those inquiring about any evidence of wrongdoing against them that the police might have found while compiling evidence against Goodman and Mulcaire.

And a spokesman for the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has confirmed earlier suggestions that he was contacted by police at the time of the trial – when he was an MP and shadow minister – and was told they had reason to believe his phone might have been hacked into, but did not have sufficient evidence to prove it. The police said Mr Johnson "should go on the assumption that he had [had his phone hacked]".

These developments come as the Commons select committee finalises its report on press standards and privacy. Last month, the Press Complaints Commission dismissed claims made in The Guardian that illegal practices were widespread at the News of the World, but conceded that the paper had revealed a "significant" new fact, namely that the News of the World had settled a legal action brought by Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, for "a large amount of money" after his mobile phone had been targeted.

Matt Driscoll, formerly a sports reporter on the NoW who was awarded nearly £800,000 in compensation after a tribunal heard that he had been bullied by executives on the paper, has told The Independent on Sunday that he was mystified when a big story about Sol Campbell, whom he regarded as one of his close contacts, appeared in the paper without his knowledge.

How the story unfolded

November 2005

Prince William suspects his voicemail intercepted after stories appear in the NoW. Police informed.

November 2006

Clive Goodman pleads guilty to conspiracy to intercept phone messages, along with Glenn Mulcaire.

January 2007

Goodman is sentenced to four months, Mulcaire to six. Andy Coulson resigns as editor of the NoW.

June 2007

Coulson appointed as David Cameron's director of communications.

July 2009

The Guardian alleges phone-hacking was more widespread than thought.

September 2009

Media select committee holds an inquiry into the Guardian's allegations. Coulson says he had no knowledge of any illegal activity.

November 2009

PCC dismisses the Guardian claims after conducting its own investigation.

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