LONDON – Britain's most senior policeman ordered an inquiry Thursday into claims that journalists from a tabloid owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch illegally hacked into the phones of hundreds of celebrities and politicians.
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Paul Stephenson said he had appointed a senior officer, Assistant Commissioner John Yates, to look into the allegations against the News of the World, which is owned by News International Ltd., a subsidiary of Murdoch's News Corp.
"We will investigate thoroughly and follow the case to where it leads us," Stephenson told Sky News.
Citing anonymous senior police sources, the Guardian reported that journalists at the tabloid used private investigators to hack into private voicemail messages, using the information to "gain unlawful access to private data, including tax records, social security files, bank statements and itemized phone bills."
It said the targets included actors Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law, celebrity chef Nigella Lawson and politicians from the three main parties.
The Guardian wrote that the News of the World had paid more than 1 million pounds ($1.6 million) in out-of-court settlements to some of the targets.
The News of the World's royalty editor, Clive Goodman, was ordered jailed for four months in 2007 for hacking into royal officials' voicemail systems. He said he had acted without the knowledge of other journalists or editors.
But the Guardian said that during the investigation into Goodman, evidence emerged that the News of the World had used private investigators to hack into the phones of as many as 3,000 public figures.
Police said they could not comment on that investigation.
The newspaper's editor at the time was Andy Coulson, now director of communications for opposition Conservative Party leader David Cameron. He resigned from his newspaper post after Goodman was sentenced, but said he had no knowledge of the hacking.
Cameron said he had given Coulson a "second chance" by hiring him after he left the News of the World.
"As director of communications for the Conservatives he does an excellent job in a proper, upright way at all times," Cameron said Thursday.
News International said in a statement that it would be "inappropriate to comment at this time."
Lawmaker John Whittingdale, who heads Parliament's culture, media and sport committee, said it would hold a meeting Thursday on The Guardian's report.
"There are a number of questions I would like to put to News International on the basis of what The Guardian has reported," Whittingdale said.
Former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, one of the alleged targets, said he had suspected his phone was tapped. He said he wanted to know why he had not been told by police.
He said that "for such a criminal act not to be reported to me, and for action not to be taken against the people who have done it, reflects very badly on the police, and I want to know their answer."
Former Home Secretary Charles Clarke said that the allegations in The Guardian raised serious questions for News International, the Conservatives, and the police.
"I think it is outrageous," he said. "I think we do need action immediately."