British PM's media chief facing questions from police

7th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

British police are likely to question Prime Minister David Cameron's media chief following a claim he knew about illegal phone hacking at a tabloid newspaper he edited, a senior officer said Tuesday.

Scotland Yard Assistant Commissioner John Yates told a House of Commons committee that police were set to speak to Andy Coulson amid a political storm over his role in a scandal that saw one of his senior reporters jailed in 2007.

"I imagine we will be seeing Mr. Coulson in some capacity," Yates told the Home Affairs Select Committee.

Coulson is one of the aides closest to Cameron, a Conservative who took power as head of a coalition government in May. Cameron's spokesman says the premier has "full confidence" in him.

A spokesman for Coulson said Monday he was prepared to meet police voluntarily to discuss the allegations.

Scotland Yard could not give details about the circumstances under which the meeting would take place.

Following Yates's appearance before the committee, its chairman said it was launching a new inquiry into the wider issue of phone hacking -- but added that no decision had yet been taken on whether to call Coulson.

"The evidence of Assistant Commissioner John Yates today raised a number questions of importance about the law on phone-hacking, the way the police deal with such breaches of the law and the manner in which victims are informed of those breaches," said chairman Keith Vaz, a lawmaker with the opposition Labour party.

"I hope that this inquiry will clarify all these important areas."

The furore dates back to when Coulson, now Cameron's communications director, was editor of the News of the World, Britain's top-selling tabloid which is renowned for its celebrity scoops.

He resigned in 2007 when the paper's royal editor, Clive Goodman, and a private investigator were jailed after the phone messages of aides to Prince Charles, Prince William and Prince Harry were illegally accessed.

Coulson, who was hired by Cameron six months later, said he took "ultimate responsibility" for the journalists' actions but denies he knew about the phone hacking.

But a recent New York Times article quoted a former reporter at the tabloid, Sean Hoare, as saying that Coulson had "actively encouraged" him to hack phone messages.

That prompted Labour lawmakers to call for Coulson's resignation in angry scenes at the Commons Monday, when they also urged police to review the case and claimed the first probe was inadequate.

Several members of parliament (MPs) claim they themselves were targeted by News of the World phone hacking and one suggested former prime minister Tony Blair may also have fallen victim.

The phone hacking allegations have previously been investigated by another House of Commons select committee on culture, media and sport.

In a report in February, it said it had "not seen any evidence" that Coulson knew of the hacking but said he was right to resign.

The committee also claimed that executives from News International, which publishes the News of the World, had "sought to conceal the truth about what has really occurred."

Recent News of the World scoops include the alleged involvement of Pakistani cricketers in a betting scam and details of the financial difficulties of Sarah Ferguson, the former wife of Queen Elizabeth II's son Prince Andrew.

© 2010 AFP

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