UK Politics

MPs back calls for fresh phone hacking investigation

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Media captionTom Watson MP: "The barons of the media have no predators"

MPs have approved a fresh parliamentary inquiry into phone hacking allegations, following criticism of the actions of News of the World journalists.

After a debate on the issue, MPs agreed the Standards and Privileges Committee should look into alleged unauthorised activity by the media.

Ex-News of the World staff say hacking was rife when No 10 communications director, Andy Coulson, was editor.

Mr Coulson has repeatedly denied that he was aware of the practice.

MPs referred a motion on the "issue of phone hacking" to the committee, which will meet on Tuesday to decide the remit of its inquiry and how wide-ranging it will be.

Unlike other Commons bodies, the standards committee has the power to compel witnesses to give evidence.

Speaking in the debate, Labour MP Chris Bryant, one of those who claim their phones were targeted, said the Commons felt "angered".

'Tip of iceberg'

Reported cases were "only the tip of the iceberg", he added, as he believed MPs from all parties had been victims of phone hacking, with information gleaned used by a variety of newspapers.

Mr Bryant said recent further allegations about the extent of phone hacking at the News of the World - which have been denied by the newspaper - warranted extra investigation.

He said the committee should examine how many MPs and ministers had been targeted, how widespread the practice was among newspapers and whether the police responded appropriately in terms of informing MPs.

"It is not about one man," Mr Bryant said. "It is about what kind of investigative journalism we want in this country."

He added: "It is about whether this House will be supine when its members' phones are hacked or whether it will take action when the democratic rights of MPs to do their job without illegal hindrance or interception has been traduced."

Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes said he believed some witnesses had been "afraid" to appear before previous inquiries and there was "terrible scope for abuse" if the practice of phone hacking was not curtailed.

"There is a whole sea of illegal and undesirable activity here," he argued.

It is not clear what the standards committee - which has the power to investigate matters relating to parliamentary privilege - could do if it found the rights of MPs had been breached.

Mr Bryant suggested those it found against could be barred from Parliament or called to the chamber of the House of Commons to be "admonished" in person.

The News of the World's former royal editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire were jailed in 2007 for conspiracy to unlawfully access voicemail messages but the newspaper said this had been an isolated case.

Fresh claims

Labour has been pressing for further action after fresh claims were made in the New York Times last week about the extent of phone hacking by journalists and Mr Coulson's direct knowledge of it - denied both by the paper and its former editor.

The Metropolitan Police have said they will interview former News of The World journalist Sean Hoare, one of the sources cited in the New York Times article, next week.

Meanwhile, another former News of the World journalist, Paul McMullan, has questioned Mr Coulson's assertion he had not been aware of staff hacking into voicemails.

Mr McMullan, who worked for a short period with Mr Coulson when he was deputy editor, told the BBC's World At One: "He would have known, as an experienced journalist, that phone hacking, the teenage schoolyard trick, was something people did... It was so prevalent 10 years ago."

Hacking into phones only became illegal in 2000 under the Regulation of Investigative Powers Act.

Mr Coulson, who was editor of the paper between 2003 and January 2007, told the Commons culture committee last year - during an earlier investigation of the case - that he had never "used or condoned" phone hacking.

Responding to MPs' decision to hold another inquiry, No 10 said "nothing had changed" in terms of Mr Coulson's position and he continued to have the prime minister's full backing.

The Metropolitan Police Force has come in for criticism for its handling of the case after it decided last year there was insufficient evidence to pursue allegations that Glenn Mulcaire had targeted a host of public figures, including leading politicians.

Labour's Tom Watson said the police had failed to interview key figures at News International, the newspaper's publisher, including its chief executive and former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks.

Colleague Paul Farrelly - a member of the culture committee - said former Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman's suggestion that no stone had been "left unturned" during the original inquiry was "simply untrue".

"Our report was highly critical of the police investigation and frankly, had Mr Hayman been in charge of the Watergate inquiry, President Nixon would have safely served a full term," he said.

"It is unacceptable for the police to say that they conducted a full and rigorous inquiry - they did not."

Mr Bryant is seeking a judicial review of what he says was the Met's failure to inform him and others alleged to have been targeted, including former Deputy Prime Minister Lord Prescott.

The News of the World has said it will investigate any allegations of wrongdoing if presented with evidence but has questioned Mr Hoare's account, saying he was dismissed from the paper and his comments should be treated with "extreme scepticism".

"This matter, which largely related to alleged behaviour five years ago, has become intensely partisan," it said in a statement.

"As we have always made clear, we have a zero-tolerance approach to wrongdoing and will take swift action if we have proof."

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