There’s a saying popular in Britain that you can wait ages for a bus to arrive and then several come along at once. After a lull of about 10 days, the News Corp. phone-hacking scandal has seen a sudden flurry of new allegations that have revived interest in the subject.
What gives these new revelations added piquancy is not merely the names of the celebrities involved—including Kate Middleton, the new wife of Prince William, now Duchess of Cambridge, as well as former prime minister Tony Blair—but also the name of the private investigator alleged to have done the hacking. It is not usual suspect Glenn Mulcaire but another man, Jonathan Rees—who, incidentally, was acquitted earlier this year of involvement in the murder of his former business partner in 1987.
During Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, Labour MP Tom Watson said that Rees had targeted members of the royal family and several senior politicians on behalf of News International, News Corp.’s U.K. newspapers operation. In a letter to Watson, Metropolitan Police deputy assistant commissioner Sue Akers, who is leading the latest phone-hacking inquiry (Operation Weeting), had stated that Rees’ activities may well be beyond her area of responsibility. Watson sought reassurance from David Cameron that he would prevent “powerful forces” covering up any illegality on Rees’ part, and Cameron told the House of Commons that there were no terms of reference limiting the inquiry and that police officers should venture wherever the evidence took them. Since police already have several thousand documents pertaining to Rees’ business that were obtained during the course of the murder investigation in which he was implicated, this could mean widening their inquiry, which already has 45 officers on the case full-time, considerably further.
Rees is not known primarily as a phone-hacker but rather as a “blagger”—that is, someone who uses trickery to obtain confidential information about bank accounts. He first worked for the News of the World in the 1990s, though he also supplied illicit information to other newspapers, including those owned by Trinity Mirror. In 2000, he was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment after being caught planting cocaine in the car of a former model. Yet once released from prison he was rehired by the News of the World, during the editorship of Andy Coulson, and resumed his nefarious activities for the paper.
Watson did not specifically name any of Rees’ alleged victims, but several British newspapers, which have interviewed Rees’ former business associates, have taken the plunge. The Independent, for example, has claimed that they included Downing Street communications director Alistair Campbell, Jack Straw while he was Home Secretary (and therefore in charge of the police), and Peter Mandelson, whose role as Secretary of State for Business embraced decisions about whether business takeovers threatened competition. Sir John Stevens, now Baron Stevens of Kirkwhelpington, is said to have been targeted during his time as Metropolitan Police commissioner, as was his successor, Sir Ian Blair. David Mellor, the former Heritage Secretary, was probably targeted at a time when he was looking into tighter regulation of the press in the late 1990s, as was Gerald Kaufman, the Labour MP who chaired the Select Committee for Culture, Media, and Sport between 1992 and 2005. Others said to have been snooped on by Rees were Gaynor Regan, the mistress and subsequently the second wife of Robin Cook, former Foreign Secretary, and Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner John Yates, when he was investigating police corruption in the late 1990s.
The Independent says that its investigation of Rees has been extensive and thorough, while the BBC says it has seen leaked documents—leaked, presumably, from the police investigation—which show that Rees had been investigating a number of leading figures. For example, in another shocking breach of privacy, Rees allegedly gained access to the past and present mortgage accounts of former Bank of England governor Eddie George; his then deputy, now governor, Mervyn King; and various other members of the Bank of England’s Monetary Police Committee, the body responsible for setting interest rates. Perhaps the most heinous breach of privacy came in 2006, when someone acting for Rees hacked into the emails of Ian Hurst, a former British Intelligence officer, using a Trojan worm virus. Hurst was in contact with Alfredo Scappaticci, a former IRA informant known by the code name “Stakeknife,” who was an assassination target. His cover blown, Scappaticci was forced to uproot himself and make no arrangements to guarantee his safety.
The names that have made the headlines, however, are Kate Middleton and Tony Blair. It is not known exactly what information was obtained from Middleton, but it was almost certainly obtained at a time when there was much speculation about whether Prince William would announce their engagement. Similarly, where Blair is concerned, there has been no hint of what Rees might have found out about him. Blair has told BBC Breakfast that he knows no more than what he has read in the papers and has no intention of approaching the Metropolitan Police, adding: “I assume that if someone’s got something, they will get in touch with me.”
At the height of his association with the News of the World, Rees’s company, Southern Investigations, was being paid £150,000 per year. His contact there, executive Alex Marunchak, has already been named in relation to the phone-hacking inquiry, although he has not yet been arrested and questioned. But Rees also dealt with executives on other tabloids, notably Doug Kempster of the Sunday Mirror and Gary Jones of the Daily Mirror. If the Met were to contact everyone whom Rees targeted, as Tony Blair suggests they will, they could have their work cut out, since, quite apart from Rees, the Guardian says it has “identified a total of 11 specialist ‘blaggers’ who were paid by wealthy clients, including Fleet Street newspapers, to steal medical records, bank statements, itemized phone bills, tax files, and anything else that was both confidential and newsworthy.”
The enormity of the Rees revelations means that other, lesser revelations about phone hacking during the last 10 days have been overshadowed. Ali Dizaei, a former Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner, has been told that his phone was probably hacked by Glenn Mulcaire. He is said to be considering legal action against News International. Last Tuesday, News International’s settlement with the actress Sienna Miller was formally announced in court and we got to learn more about the extent of that particular breach of privacy. The News of the World had used information obtained through phone-hacking to publish 11 stories about the actress. Mulcaire had written in notebooks the address and home telephone number of Miller’s mother, as well as information about the mobile phones of her former boyfriend Jude Law and her publicist and friend Ciara Parkes. There were also details of messages left on her mobile, the times of calls and the numbers of the callers. Miller was forced to change her mobile phone number three times out of suspicion of hacking, but Mulcaire’s notebooks contained information relating to all three numbers. One News of the World story based on information obtained through hacking concerned discussions between Miller and Law about the possibility of their having children together.
Speaking on behalf of News International, Michael Silverleaf QC acknowledged “that the information should never have been obtained in the manner it was, the private information should never have been published, and that the first defendant [NGN] has accepted responsibility for misuse of private information, breach of confidence, and harassment.”