Britain to probe if tabloid made 3,000 illegal phone-taps

By Dipankar De Sarkar, IANS,

London : British police and parliament said Thursday they will probe claims that a tabloid newspaper illegally tapped the telephones of thousands of high-profile figures, including a former deputy prime minister, and paid a million pound to victims.

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The Guardian claimed Thursday three cases were settled out of court after journalists from the News of the World tabloid were accused of hiring private investigators who obtained information illegally.

The Guardian claimed that the tabloid, owned by Australian media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, targeted up to 3,000 high-profile figures, including former British deputy prime minister John Prescott, models Elle Macpherson and Lisa Snowdon, publicist Max Clifford, actors Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law, singer George Michael, ex-England football manager Sven-Goran Eriksson, London Mayor Boris Johnson, the late reality television star Jade Goody and politicians from all the major British parties.

The British parliament’s Culture Select Committee and London’s Metropolitan Police said they will separately investigate the claims.

The Guardian said the tabloid made out-of-court payments to secure secrecy over the methods employed by its staff, and claimed Thursday’s revelations may “open the door to hundreds more legal actions by victims� as well as provoking police inquiries”.

A furious Prescott said, “I find it staggering that there could be a list known to the police of people who’ve had their phones tapped – I’m named as one of them.”

“For such a criminal act not to be reported to me and not for action to be taken against the people who’ve done it… reflects very badly on the police, and I want to know their answer,” he added.

The Guardian said the “suppressed legal cases” relate to the jailing in 2007 of a News of the World reporter for hacking into the mobile phones of three royal staff working for Prince Charles’ elder son William.

Although the tabloid then claimed that the reporter had acted without its knowledge and that it knew of no other journalist involved in such acts, the police investigating the case told The Guardian that the tabloid’s staff hacked into “two or three thousand” mobile phones.

The News of the World editor at the time, Andy Coulson, has since joined opposition Conservative Party leader David Cameron as his communications director.

“The ramping up of this story is ridiculous – this is about a payment made well after Andy (Coulson) left the News of the World,” a spokeswoman for Cameron said, in reference to The Guardian’s claim that the tabloid paid out 700,000 pounds in damages and legal costs to Gordon Taylor, the head of the Professional Footballers’ Association.