News of the World spied on lawyers

A policeman walks through the security gates at News International's Wapping plant on July 7.

Story highlights

  • News International admitted to hiring a private detective to spy on celebrity lawyers
  • The company described the action as "deeply in-appropriate"
  • James Murdoch is due to return to a Commons committee to discuss what he knew

News International, publisher of the now-defunct News of the World, admitted on Monday that the Sunday tabloid had hired a private detective to spy on lawyers defending celebrities and politicians targeted by phone hacking.

The company described the action as "deeply in-appropriate".

Charlotte Harris, of Mishcon de Reya law firm, who represents clients including the sports agent Sky Andrew in claims against NI, and Mark Lewis, who represents the family of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, were observed by the detective in order to gather information on the lawyers' private lives.

"News International's inquiries have led the company to believe that Mark Lewis and Charlotte Harris were subject to surveillance. While surveillance is not illegal, it was clearly deeply inappropriate in these circumstances. This action was not condoned by any current executive at the company," said a News International statement.

Details of the covert surveillance were first reported on Monday by the Guardian newspaper, which named the detective as Derek Webb, a former policeman.

According to documents seen by Newsnight, the two lawyers were targeted because NI was allegedly attempting to protect Andy Coulson, former editor of the News of the World who went on to become David Cameron's head of communications. According to the BBC news programme, executives at NI were intent on avoiding negative publicity that could have damaged Mr Coulson.

The revelation comes at a sensitive time for NI. Last week News Corp, its US parent company, laid bare the financial cost of the hacking scandal, saying a $91m restructuring charge and a $68m hit to its publishing profits in its latest quarter stemmed primarily from its closure of the News of the World in July.

On Thursday, James Murdoch, News Corp's deputy chief operating officer, is due to return to a Commons committee to discuss what he knew about what a barrister told the company in 2008 was "a culture of illegal information access" at the News of the World.

Tom Watson, Labour MP, said: "When we took evidence from James Murdoch he said the true picture of phone hacking emerged in 2010. The company's response was to try to besmirch the lawyers representing the victims. This shows what a ruthless organisation this is."

On Monday, the Metropolitan Police, Mr Lewis and Mishcon de Reya declined to comment. Ms Harris was not available to comment.