LONDON—Britain’s Scotland Yard has written to the country’s top-selling Sunday tabloid to ask if it has any evidence to support claims that the paper spied on celebrities, politicians and other high-profile figures.
But the police force—which has been accused of sweeping the allegations under a rug—refused to explain why it was asking the powerful paper to volunteer potentially incriminating evidence about itself.
The force also refused to say whether it had ever sought such evidence before, or say what would happen if the tabloid didn’t comply with its request.
The News of The World has been at the center of the tabloid phone hacking scandal since a reporter and a private investigator employed by the Rupert Murdoch title were caught illegally eavesdropping on the phones of the British royal family’s entourage. The pair were convicted in 2007, but the News of the World has long insisted that they were the only ones responsible for the sophisticated phone tapping operation—a claim dismissed as implausible by the paper’s critics.
The issue is particularly sensitive because the tabloid’s former editor, Andy Coulson, who stepped down in the wake of the scandal, now serves as British Prime Minister David Cameron’s communications director. Coulson has long insisted he knew nothing of the illegal goings-on at his paper while he was in charge.
The issue burst back on to the British front pages last year when The New York Times quoted a former News of The World reporter, Sean Hoare, as saying that Coulson not only knew of the phone tapping—he encouraged it. Another ex-staff member, Paul McMullan, was later quoted in the British press as saying Coulson knew.
Police have come in for harsh scrutiny too. The Times quoted several unnamed detectives as saying that they felt internal pressure to curtail their investigation into The News of The World, which turned up thousands of numbers of potential phone tapping targets.
Police have denied that claim, but launched a fresh investigation amid public outcry.
Earlier this month, prosecutors said they had found no new evidence to back the allegations. The Guardian newspaper, which has also aggressively investigated the scandal, ridiculed the announcement.
“If The Guardian can find numerous News of the World journalists who admit that the newspaper gathered information by illegal means, why can’t Scotland Yard?” one of its reporters wrote following the news.
Meanwhile the scandal has rumbled on. The police’s latest plea for information—announced on Friday after business hours—follows The Guardian’s publication of a legal document alleging that the voicemails of actress Sienna Miller and her partner Jude Law were among those broken into. Ian Edmonson, a senior executive at the paper, was among those named in the document.
Edmonson’s suspension was announced Wednesday, putting renewed pressure on authorities to act. The News of The World said late Friday that it would “cooperate fully” with the police.