UK minister may have had computers hacked

AP News
Posted: Nov 30, 2011 1:22 PM
UK minister may have had computers hacked

A small number of journalists have disgraced Britain's press, Tony Blair's former communications chief told a media ethics inquiry, as a former government minister said detectives were investigating whether his computers had been hacked by a tabloid newspaper.

Ex-Downing Street aide Alastair Campbell said Wednesday that journalists who had hacked into the phones of celebrities, royals, politicians and crime victims had "besmirched the name" of almost every other reporter in the country.

The strong criticism of Britain's beleaguered press came as former Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain's office said he had met with police officers "regarding an investigation into the alleged hacking of his official and personal computers" when he was in office.

Hain, the previous Labour Party government's Northern Ireland secretary between 2005 and 2007, would have had access to classified intelligence information including details about informers inside paramilitary groups.

Police investigating phone hacking by Rupert Murdoch's now-defunct tabloid News of the World have set up a parallel probe into whether computers also were targeted. Last week detectives arrested a 52-year-old man on suspicion of possible Computer Misuse Act offenses.

Murdoch's News International said it was "co-operating fully with the police" on all investigations.

Prime Minister David Cameron set up the media inquiry after it became clear that the News of the World had illegally eavesdropped on the voicemails of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old girl who was abducted and murdered in 2002. That revelation shocked many Britons and shone a light on previously little-examined illicit press practices.

"We have a press that has just become frankly putrid in many of its elements," said Campbell, who is credited with running a sophisticated _ and manipulative _ media operation when he worked for the then-prime minister Blair between 1997 and 2003.

"A very, very small number of people have completely changed the newspaper industry," said Campbell, who criticized the "inhumane treatment" meted out to celebrities and ordinary people alike by newspapers in relentless pursuit of exclusives.

Campbell said police had told him that details about him and his domestic partner were included in the notes of private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, who worked for the News of the World and was jailed in 2007 for phone hacking.

In a written witness statement, Campbell said he suspected the phone of Blair's wife, Cherie, had also been hacked _ although he acknowledged he had no proof. He said phone hacking could explain how the Daily Mirror newspaper learned that Cherie Blair was pregnant in 1999.

"I have heard all sorts of stories as to how the information got out, but none of them strike me as credible," Campbell said.

The media inquiry, led by justice Brian Leveson, could recommend changes to Britain's system of media self-regulation.

Its focus has already expanded far beyond the News of the World. Witnesses both famous and non-famous _ from actor Hugh Grant and "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling to the parents of missing girl Madeleine McCann _ have told the hearings at London's Royal Courts of Justice how their lives were upended by media intrusion.

Mark Lewis, a lawyer for several high-profile hacking victims, on Wednesday described his shock at learning that he and his family had been put under surveillance by a private investigator working for News International. The surveillance, apparently in search of material to discredit him, included following and filming his 14-year-old daughter.

"News International sought to destroy my life, and very nearly succeeded," Lewis told the inquiry.

News International has acknowledged that it spied on Lewis and another lawyer and apologized.

The still-unraveling scandal has curbed the power of newspapers that were long courted and feared by celebrities and politicians.

A former investigator for Britain's Information Commissioner's Office told the inquiry he had been discouraged from investigating the press while he was looking into the case of private investigator Steve Whittamore, who was arrested in 2003 with notebooks containing 17,500 requests from journalists for unlisted phone numbers, criminal record checks and other confidential information.

Owens said he wanted to interview the journalists, but a superior told him: "We can't take them on, they're too big for us."

Murdoch shut down the News of the World in July after evidence emerged that it had accessed the mobile phone voice mails of celebrities, politicians and even crime victims in its search for scoops. More than a dozen current and former journalists and editors from the paper have been arrested, and two top London police officers and several senior Murdoch executives have resigned over the still-unfolding hacking scandal.

Police said they had made a new arrest, a 31-year-old woman detained in northern England on Wednesday. Her name was not disclosed, although media including Sky News _ which is 39 percent owned by Murdoch's News Corp. _ identified her as a former News of the World reporter.

She was later released on bail pending further inquiries.

The only people charged with crimes so far are Mulcaire and former News of the World reporter Clive Goodman, who were jailed in 2007 for hacking into the voicemails of royal aides.