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Watchdog clears NotW over renewed phone hack allegations

The Guardian takes pop at PCC 'whitewash'

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The UK press self-regulation body has dismissed allegations that phone tapping of celebrities was endemic and ongoing at British tabloid the News of the World.

The PCC investigation began in July after the Guardian reported how the NotW paid out more than £1m to settle privacy lawsuits from public figures, including football players' union boss Gordon Taylor, whose voicemail messages were intercepted. The Guardian further claimed that News International staff used dodgy private investigators to access thousand of mobile phone accounts targeting celebrities and public figures, including former deputy prime Minister John Prescott and football manager Sir Alex Ferguson, among others.

The allegation reignited a controversy that News Group must have thought had died off after veteran former News of the Screw's royal editor Clive Goodman and a private detective accomplice were jailed for hacking in 2007 into the voicemail messages of royal aides.

The renewed controversy spawned parliamentary hearings and a PCC inquiry, which concluded on Monday with a report deciding there was "no evidence that it was materially misled by the News of the World, and no evidence that phone message hacking is ongoing" or carried out by reporters other than Goodman at any time. News International has always maintained that the two man acted alone, without the knowledge of support of NotW management or senior editorial staff.

Andy Coulson, editor of the News of the World at the time Goodman illegally bugged mobile phones, resigned over the affair before landing a job as Tory communications director. The Conservative Party backed its chief spin-doctor during the renewed controversy this summer.

In a statement (extract below), the PCC explained its position following an investigation, adding that it is "satisfied that - so far as it is possible to tell - its work aimed at improving the integrity of undercover journalism has played its part in raising standards in this area."

The PCC received information from a number of sources. It found no evidence that it was materially misled by the News of the World, and no evidence that phone message hacking is ongoing. The Guardian's sources suggesting a greater culture of intrusion at the News of the World were anonymous and could not be tested, while the Commission noted that there were "a significant number of on-the-record statements from those who have conducted inquiries, and have first hand knowledge of events at the newspaper" who were prepared to state a contrary position.

The Commission said that it had "not lost sight of the fact that the genesis of [its two reports] was the deplorable, illegal and unethical behaviour of two people working for the News of the World in 2006", but that it had "seen no new evidence to suggest that the practice of phone message tapping was undertaken by others beyond Goodman and Mulcaire, or evidence that News of the World executives knew about Goodman and Mulcaire's activities."

The Guardian responded to the PCC's conclusions by lining up friendly MPs prepared to denounce the watchdog's report as a “whitewash”.

The Guardian also laid into the PCC off its own back. "This complacent report shows that the PCC does not have the ability, the budget or the procedures to conduct its own investigations," it said. "The report confirms the central allegation made by The Guardian and has not produced any independent evidence of its own to contradict a single fact in our coverage."

The Met Police ruled out the possibility of reopening the NotW phone-tapping investigation days after The Guardian re-ignited the scandal back in July. However another inquiry, from the Commons culture, media and sport select committee, is yet to report. ®

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