Cameron aide sought for questioning in British phone-hacking scandal

By Henry Chu
Los Angeles Times

LONDON – Scotland Yard said Tuesday that it expected to question a top aide to British Prime Minister David Cameron in a growing scandal over a tabloid newspaper’s alleged efforts to hack the cell phones of celebrities, politicians and members of the monarchy.

Andy Coulson, Cameron’s communications director, stepped down as editor of the weekly News of the World three years ago after one of the paper’s reporters was convicted of illegally accessing voicemail messages left for staff members of the royal household, including from Prince William and Prince Harry.

Coulson denies knowing that such hacking took place. But a report by The New York Times over the weekend quoted former journalists at the newspaper as saying the practice was widespread at the tabloid and that Coulson was fully aware of it.

John Yates, assistant commissioner at Scotland Yard, told lawmakers Tuesday that police were seeking an interview with Sean Hoare, a former News of the World reporter who was fired several years ago. Hoare has alleged that Coulson was present in meeting after meeting in which stories based on hacked cell phones were discussed.

“At some stage, I imagine we would be seeing Mr. Coulson in some capacity,” Yates added.

Coulson has said that he would be willing to meet with police. Cameron declared earlier this week that Coulson had his unqualified support.

Police have been under pressure in recent days to reopen their investigation after the New York Times story accused Scotland Yard of failing to follow up further leads in the case of the News of the World’s royal affairs reporter, who was convicted in 2007.

Police gathered evidence that at the time suggested the tabloid potentially had access to the cell phones of hundreds of people, including leading politicians, athletes, models and other celebrities. But few of the possible targets were told that their voicemail might be broken into.

Britain’s tabloids are notorious for their aggressiveness and sometimes dubious tactics in pursuing scoops and gossip. The papers routinely pay informants and stage elaborate stings.

They also often work closely with police, from whom they receive tips and to whom they offer flattering publicity by covering celebrity arrests and other high-profile cases.

The New York Times report suggested that Scotland Yard might have conducted only a partial, half-hearted investigation into the News of the World because it wanted to preserve a good relationship with the paper. The tabloid has, in turn, accused the Times of targeting it because the American paper is locked in a bitter rivalry with News International, the company that owns the News of the World, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Post.

Summoned before a parliamentary committee, Yates said Tuesday that Scotland Yard had asked the Times for some of the information it had gathered. But the paper has declined, saying that the “police already have evidence that they have chosen not to pursue.”

Coulson was named communications director for the then-opposition Conservative Party after quitting as editor of News of the World in 2007. He followed Cameron to 10 Downing Street when the general election in May brought the Tories to power.