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British phone-hacking scandal comes to Downing Street as Cameron aide likely to be questioned

Police also want to interview a former tabloid reporter who has said that the aide and former editor, Andy Coulson, knew of alleged efforts to hack cellphones belonging to celebs, politicians and aides to the royal family.

September 08, 2010|By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from 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 cellphones of celebrities, politicians and aides to 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 some 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 tabloid as saying the practice was widespread there 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 cellphones were discussed.

"At some stage, I imagine we would be seeing Mr. Coulson in some capacity," Yates said.

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

Police have been under pressure to reopen their investigation after the New York Times story said Scotland Yard failed 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 cellphones of hundreds of people, including politicians, athletes, models and other celebrities. But few of the possible targets were told that their voicemail might be vulnerable.

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 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, halfhearted investigation of 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 the News of the World in 2007. He followed Cameron to 10 Downing Street when the general election in May brought the Tories to power.

henry.chu@latimes.com

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