Police are investigating alleged email interception by Rupert Murdoch's Times of London, a British lawmaker said Thursday _ dragging Britain's oldest national newspaper into the broadening scandal over press wrongdoing.
The country's media ethics inquiry has summoned the newspaper's editor to answer questions about the claims.
Labour Party legislator Tom Watson, who helped lift the lid on tabloid phone hacking, released a letter from police confirming they were investigating alleged email hacking by The Times. Watson, a member of Parliament's Culture, Media and Sport committee, had written to police asking them to take up the issue.
The letter from Detective Supt. John Levett, head of the force's computer hacking investigation, is dated Jan. 25 and tells Watson that "the concerns raised within your letters are under investigation and officers ... are dealing directly with the victim."
The 226-year-old Times has acknowledged that a former reporter tried to intercept emails in 2009 to unmask an anonymous policeman who blogged as NightJack.
Editor James Harding told the media ethics inquiry last month that the reporter had acted on his own and had been reprimanded. The paper later published the blogger's name, but Harding insisted it had been obtained by legal means.
London's Metropolitan Police confirmed Thursday that computer hacking investigators "are in contact with Mr. Watson in relation to specific issues he wishes to raise," but would not give further details or confirm the letter's authenticity. The Times declined to comment.
In the wake of the new development, Harding will be summoned back to give further testimony to the judge-led inquiry.
Police are holding parallel inquiries into phone hacking, police bribery and claims of computer hacking by Murdoch papers, all of them triggered by the revelation that the now-defunct News of the World tabloid routinely listened to mobile phone voice mails in its quest for stories.
The investigation has expanded to take in claims of illegal payments to police by staff of the News of the World and its sister tabloid, The Sun.
Murdoch's News Corp. has already admitted computer hacking, acknowledging that the News of the World hacked the emails of Chris Shipman, the son of serial killer Harold Shipman. It has apologized and paid Shipman damages.
Murdoch shut down the 168-year-old News of the World in July after the revelation it had eavesdropped on the cell phone voicemail messages of celebrities, athletes, politicians and even an abducted teenager.
The scandal has triggered a continuing public inquiry into media ethics and the relationship between the press, police and politicians.
More than two dozen people have been arrested by police _ many of them journalists and executives of Murdoch newspapers.
The scandal has led to the resignations of several senior Murdoch executives and two of the London police force's top officers. An earlier police investigation failed to find evidence that hacking went beyond one News of the World reporter and a private investigator, who were both jailed in 2007 for eavesdropping on the phones of royal staff.
News Corp. has since acknowledged it was much more widespread, and allegations have spread to the Sun, Britain's best-selling daily _ and now to the venerable Times.
At the inquiry Thursday, representatives of three mobile phone companies admitted they did not tell customers their phones had been hacked for more than five years after discovering the intrusion.
Vodafone, Orange and T-Mobile established that a total of 156 people on their networks had been the victims of hacking after News of the World royal editor Clive Goodman was arrested in August 2006.
But Orange and T-Mobile did not notify the customers until last July, and Vodafone not until last month.
"We were expressly told at the time of the investigation not to contact our customers as we may prejudice the police investigation," said Vodafone's head of security, Mark Hughes.
"With the benefit of hindsight, it would have been much better to have a level of clarity with the police much earlier so that we could tell our customers what the issue was," he said.
In contrast, a fourth company, O2 said it discovered that about 40 of its customers could have had their voicemails illegally intercepted and contacted them five years ago, at the time of the original police inquiry.
Jill Lawless can be reached at: http://twitter.com/JillLawless