News Corp.’s U.K. publishing unit, under investigation by London police for hacking into voice mails and bribing public officials, may have also taken information from stolen phones.
The Metropolitan Police Service discovered that News International journalists in Manchester and London had information that appeared to be from stolen mobile phones, Sue Akers, the force’s deputy assistant commissioner, said today. She said the investigation is in an early stage.
Judge Brian Leveson is leading the inquisition into journalistic practices after News Corp.’s reporters were caught hacking into phones and computers and paying off public officials for stories last year. The company shut its News of the World tabloid in 2011 after the allegations surfaced. News International had no immediate comment.
Eleven journalists currently on bail are scheduled to report to police tomorrow to find out if they’ll face phone-hacking charges, Akers said. The police are also considering recommending further charges for police officers, journalists, and others in the computer hacking and bribery investigations, she said.
Former News International Chief Executive Officer Rebekah Brooks has been charged with perverting the course of justice in the probe. Andy Coulson, the News of the World editor who became Prime Minister David Cameron’s communications director, has been arrested in London and charged with perjury in Scotland related to his time at the tabloid. Both deny the accusations.
Separately, Akers said police have finished identifying victims of phone hacking and have contacted more than 2,000 people, 702 of whom were probably targeted. While the actual number of people who had their voice mails illegally accessed by journalists or investigators to get stories is higher, the police were unable to contact all of them, she said at the media-ethics inquiry today.
The Leveson inquiry, which is in its final week of taking evidence, will hear closing submissions today from the Metropolitan Police, the Telegraph Media Group and Northern & Shell Plc, which owns Express Newspapers and Channel 5 in the U.K.
The ethics scandal is spreading to other tabloids as the police dig deeper. Trinity Mirror Plc, publisher of the Daily Mirror, allegedly paid public officials more than 14,000 pounds ($21,800) between 2006 and 2012 to get news, Akers said today. Police have reason to believe that the payments wouldn’t meet the conditions for a “public interest” defense, though Akers emphasized that decision is in the hands of the Crown Prosecution Service.
“We take any accusation against the company very seriously and we are cooperating with the police,” Trinity Mirror spokesman Nick Fullagar said in an e-mail. “We remain engaged with the Leveson Inquiry.”
Justin Penrose, a crime reporter at the company’s Sunday Mirror, and a former Trinity Mirror reporter who left in March, were arrested this month on suspicion of making illegal payments. A reporter with Express Newspapers, which Akers said is also under investigation for payments to public officials, was also arrested this month.
About 60 people have been arrested since the police investigations began last year, including former News International Chief Executive Rebekah Brooks. News Corp. shut its most popular Sunday tabloid, the News of the World, in July 2011 after the Guardian newspaper reported that journalists had hacked into a murdered teenager’s voice mail. The company also scuttled a deal to acquire all of British Sky Broadcasting Group last year.
News Corp. Chief Executive Officer Rupert Murdoch stepped down from the News International board last week in what the company is calling standard “housecleaning.” Murdoch’s retreat follows his son James who left his position as head of News International this year to assume the deputy operating chief role in New York.
The company has also agreed, under shareholder pressure, to split into two publicly traded entities -- separating the troubled newspaper assets from the more lucrative television and entertainment business. Rupert Murdoch is slated to be chairman of both units.
News Corp. is working to stem the damages from hacking and is working to resolve about 50 combined civil lawsuits before a trial scheduled for February. A trial earlier this year was canceled after an initial group of test lawsuits was settled.
News International lawyer Michael Silverleaf said last week that about 250 alleged victims have sought out-of-court settlements with the company, using a procedure it created and that’s overseen by a former judge. He said about 79 deals have been reached and they aren’t part of the current case.