London: Scotland Yard, still reeling from the alleged police role in Britain's phone hacking scandal, was asked on Thursday to investigate another explosive claim: that journalists bribed officers to locate people by tracking their cell phone signals.
The practice is known as "pinging" because of the way cell phone signals bounce off relay towers as they try to find reception.
Jenny Jones, a member of the board that oversees the Metropolitan Police Authority, cited claims that reporters at the now-defunct News of the World tabloid paid off corrupt police officers to trace cell phones.
The allegation was made by the late Sean Hoare, a former News of the World reporter who spoke to the New York Times about skullduggery at the tabloid. Hoare — who was fired in 2005 — said that officers were paid nearly USD 500 (GBP 300) per trace. The paper cited a second unnamed former News of the World journalist as corroborating Hoare's claim.
Hoare was found dead on Monday at his home near London; police say the death is not suspicious.
Jones asked Scotland Yard to examine the records of all cases in which police accessed phone-tracking data "to ensure those were valid requests”.
In an interview with a news agency, Jones said that going through the cell phone tracing requests "is a relatively simple way of finding corrupt officers" given that it would be clear who was being targeted and when.
"The information is there and you can check," she said.
Pinging joins a host of alleged media misdeeds being put under the microscope as police, politicians, and the public weigh allegations that journalists at Rupert Murdoch's News of the World engaged in years of lawless behaviour to get scoops.
What began in 2005 as a slow-burning scandal over one reporter's efforts to spy on voice mails left on the phones of Britain's royal household has exploded into a crisis that has shaken Murdoch's media empire and led to resignations of two of Scotland Yard's most senior officers.
British politicians have felt the heat too, with the country's top two party leaders falling over each other to distance themselves from papers they once both courted assiduously.
Prime Minister David Cameron's former communications director — Murdoch newspapers veteran Andy Coulson— came under fresh scrutiny on Thursday after it was reported that he did not have a top-level security clearance, which spared him from the most stringent type of vetting.
And there was further intrigue injected into the scandal after Britain's Cabinet Office released correspondence showing that a senior official believed he had had his phone broken into as recently as last year, when Coulson was already in government.
The unnamed senior bureaucrat believed that someone was trying to intercept his calls to settle a political score, according to a letter signed by David Bell, who works as permanent secretary to the Department for Education. The letter was forwarded to journalists late Thursday after the issue was raised in Parliament.
Bell emphasised that the official did not believe he'd been targeted by Coulson or anyone else at Cameron's Downing Street office. He added that neither police nor the man's phone company found any evidence of wrongdoing.
Still, the revelation suggests that at least one top official believed he was being spied on by journalists — well after Coulson and his former News of the World colleagues insisted the practice was dead and buried.
Although the issue had been covered off-and-on over the years, almost exclusively by the Guardian, allegations of illegal behaviour at the News of the World have received feverish attention since a July 04 report alleged that someone at the tabloid hacked the phone of 13-year-old murder victim Milly Dowler in 2002 while police were still searching for her.
The temperature cooled a bit on Thursday, with Parliament closed for the first day of its summer recess, but the investigation appeared to be intensifying.
London's Metropolitan Police said on Wednesday it was assigning 15 more officers to help the 45 already involved in the investigation.
Murdoch's News Corp, meanwhile, said it had instructed the law firm of Harbottle and Lewis to answer police questions about e-mails and other documents from an internal investigation at News of the World in 2007. That inquiry found no evidence that Coulson was aware of hacking by reporter Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire. Both were sentenced to prison for hacking into phones of the royal household.
Harbottle and Lewis had said there was no evidence of wider criminality at the newspaper.
The file of e-mails and documents was turned over to police in June.
Ken MacDonald, a former director of public prosecutions who has been hired to advise the News Corp board, reviewed e-mails from the file relating to payments to police.
On Tuesday, MacDonald told a parliamentary committee that it was immediately obvious a crime may have been committed. "I cannot imagine anyone looking at that file and not seeing evidence of crime on its face," MacDonald said.
Since the latest phone hacking allegations emerged, London's police chief and the head of its antiterrorist operations have resigned. So have Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International, which runs Murdoch's British newspaper division, and Les Hinton, the publisher of the Wall Street Journal who formerly headed News International. Murdoch has shut down the 168-year-old News of the World, leaving 200 employees looking for work, and abandoned his bid to win control of lucrative British Sky Broadcasting.
Shutting News of the World apparently will also cost Murdoch's surviving British newspapers their exclusive access to British athletes ahead of the 2012 London Olympics.
Team 2012, an initiative supporting British Olympians, had signed up News International as its official partner to help raise funds for athletes. But without the News of the World, Team 2012 said News International can no longer meet its contractual obligations, and it is looking for new media partners.
First Published: Friday, July 22, 2011, 09:27