LONDON, Feb 29 (Reuters) - British detectives investigating claims of phone-hacking at Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World newspaper in 2006 were impeded by the company’s staff and feared violence when they tried to search its offices, police said on Wednesday.
News International, the British newspaper arm of Murdoch’s News Corp, was also well aware of suspicions the practice was widespread and probably destroyed or hid incriminating evidence about illegal activities, an inquiry into press ethics was told.
The search took place during an original police probe into the illegal accessing of mobile phone voicemails by journalists at the News of the World which led to the jailing of one of the paper’s reporters, Clive Goodman, and a private detective.
News International said the practice was limited to one “rogue” reporter until, faced with overwhelming evidence, it admitted last year hacking was widespread with targets ranging from celebrities and politicians to the victims of crime.
The ensuing scandal rocked Murdoch’s company and has led to the resignation of senior News International executives, new criminals inquires with the arrest of a growing number of staff and huge payouts in damages.
Murdoch’s son James resigned as News International boss on Wednesday as embarrassing revelations continued to emerge.
London’s police force has also come in for much criticism over why its original investigation had not revealed the scale of the hacking.
Three senior officers told the public inquiry set up in the wake of the hacking scandal that detectives suspected the practice was much more widespread, but did not have the resources to take the investigation further and were deliberately hampered by News International.
Detective Superintendent Keith Surtees, one of the lead officers on the case, said the team he sent to search the company’s offices in Wapping, east London, in 2006 had faced an overtly hostile reaction.
A forensic unit were barred from entry while the few allowed inside faced a “tense stand-off” with editors. They were finally allowed to search Goodman’s desk surrounded by staff and photographers taking pictures of them.
The officer leading the search “was concerned at the time that NOTW staff may offer some form of violence against the small police team in the building”, Surtees said in a written statement.
Surtees told the inquiry there was no chance they could have conducted another search saying the moment had been lost. He agreed with the suggestion that this meant News International would have destroyed or hidden incriminating evidence.
Surtees said he would have liked to investigate further but in the wake of the July 2005 suicide bombings in London which killed 52 people, the capital’s force was stretched with some 72 ongoing anti-terrorism inquiries.
Detective Chief Superintendent Phil Williams, the senior investigating officer in 2006, said police hoped that News International would take action themselves to address the issue.
“Given that ultimately a member of their senior management team resigned on the basis of what we’d found I’d have expected any senior management in an organization to question why had that happened and to understand exactly what had gone on,” he said.
The inquiry also heard that the phone of Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of News International who quit her job over the scandal, had been hacked on a weekly basis by News of the World reporters when she was editor of its daily sister paper the Sun.