LONDON (Reuters) - British lawmakers accused bosses at Rupert Murdoch’s top-selling British tabloid on Wednesday of suffering “collective amnesia” over illegal hacking of phone messages meant for royalty and other celebrities.
A parliamentary committee on media said in a report it was “inconceivable” that managers at the News of the World did not know about the practice, which the legislators said was more widespread than the Sunday newspaper had previously admitted.
News International, the British arm of Murdoch’s News Corp. which publishes the News of the World, rejected the claims and accused the committee of bias against it.
“The reaction of the committee to its failure to find any new evidence has been to make claims of ‘collective amnesia’, deliberate obfuscation and concealment of the truth,” it said.
In 2007, Clive Goodman, who reported on the British royal family for the paper, was jailed for four months after writing stories based on phone taps of royal aides carried out by a private detective.
News International has always maintained that Goodman acted without the knowledge of senior editors and his actions had been an isolated incident.
But the cross-party parliamentary committee said in its report: “The evidence, we find, makes it inconceivable that no-one else at the News of the World, bar Mr. Goodman, was aware of the activities.”
Last July, the left-leaning Guardian newspaper said News of the World reporters, with the knowledge of senior staff, had illegally accessed messages from the mobile phones of thousands of celebrities and politicians.
British tabloids are in fierce competition for scoops on sex and show business scandals.
Actors Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow, Australian model Elle Macpherson and former British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott were among those targeted, the Guardian said.
It also said News International had paid 1 million pounds ($1.5 million) to settle complaints by three victims.
The Press Complaints Commission watchdog said in November it had found no proof to support the Guardian story that the practice of hacking was widespread at the News of the World, and the police said they would not reopen their investigation.
However, the parliamentary committee said the number of people affected was certainly more than the handful named by police and the paper.
“We were very concerned at evidence which has emerged suggesting that the phone hacking which took place at the News of the World around five years ago was not just limited to one rogue reporter,” said committee chairman John Whittingdale, a member of the opposition Conservative party.
“We were also concerned at the reluctance of witnesses from News International to provide the detailed information that we sought and the collective amnesia that afflicted them,” he said in a statement accompanying the report.
Andy Coulson, a former News of the World editor now advising the right-leaning opposition Conservative Party, resigned in the wake of the Goodman affair in 2005, saying he had no knowledge of the phone tapping but took ultimate responsibility.
The committee said it had seen no evidence that Coulson himself knew what was happening but agreed he was right to quit.
editing by Paul Taylor