UK police may reopen probe of alleged phone hacking by tabloid if new evidence emerges

LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister David Cameron's communications director, a former tabloid editor, offered Monday to meet with police as they consider reopening an investigation into claims his newspaper's reporters illegally eavesdropped on scores of politicians and celebrities.

Cameron's PR chief, Andy Coulson, has denied wrongdoing and said he would assist any new inquiry after a New York Times investigation alleged that phone hacking was more extensive among his employees than an initial inquiry had established.

Coulson stepped down as News of the World editor in 2007 after one of his reporters was convicted of hacking. Cameron appointed Coulson to his staff later that year, and said he believed in "giving people a second chance."

The allegations of phone hacking — sensational even by the knockabout standards of the British press — have been investigated previously by police and a parliamentary committee, but were stirred anew by the Times report, which was published Sunday.

John Yates, an assistant London police commissioner, said officers would seek any new information in the case and consult prosecutors about whether to carry out a new inquiry if new evidence is uncovered.

Opposition lawmakers called Monday for the government to pressure police to establish how many legislators were been targeted by the newspaper — and questioned Coulson's position.

Home Secretary Theresa May told the House of Commons that ministers would not interfere in the police department's handling of the issue.

"The Metropolitan Police have indicated that if there is further evidence, they will look at it," she said. "That is the right course of action and it is right for the government to await the outcome."

The tabloid's former royal reporter and a private investigator were sentenced to jail in 2007 for intercepting messages left for royal officials, including some from Princes William and Harry. Police said they had no evidence the illegal behavior at the newspaper went any further.

Scotland Yard said, however, that detectives found nearly 3,000 cell phone numbers over the course of their investigation and that hundreds of people were thought to have been targeted, although it was likely far fewer had their phones actually broken into.

Lawmaker Tom Watson told the House of Commons Monday that ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair had contacted police over concerns he may have been a target. Blair's office could not immediately confirm the claim.

Coulson has always insisted he knew nothing of the phone hacking. But some former staff have claimed the process of intercepting voicemail messages was widespread.

The New York Times report claimed that breaking in to voicemail was a matter of routine in the paper's newsroom, and that Coulson had participated in dozens or even hundreds of meetings where the hacking was discussed.

Yates said police were interested in statements by a former reporter, Sean Hoare, who told the Times that Coulson had asked him to hack into phones.

"This is the first time we have heard of Mr. Hoare or anything he has to say," Yates told the BBC. However, Yates said he was surprised the Times "did not alert us to this information earlier than they did."

On Monday, the Times quoted its executive editor Bill Keller as saying the newspaper had declined a request from London police to provide interview materials and notes.

"Our story speaks for itself and makes clear that the police already have evidence that they have chosen not to pursue," Keller was quoted as saying.

Cameron's Downing Street office said Coulson had the prime minister's support.

"Andy has made his position clear, there have been a number of reports over the last few days and those reports change nothing as far as the prime minister is concerned," said spokesman Steve Field. "The prime minister accepts the position; he has full confidence in Andy Coulson and he continues to do his job."

The News of the World has accused the Times of being motivated by commercial rivalry. The tabloid is owned by News International Ltd., a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., whose U.S. media outlets include Fox Television, the New York Post, and the Wall Street Journal — which is in fierce competition with the New York Times.

"We reject absolutely any suggestion there was a widespread culture of wrongdoing at the News of the World," the newspaper said in a statement Monday.