News Corp. Spied on Phone Hacking Lawyers and Their Children; Tried to Find Proof of Affair

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Private investigator Derek Webb says he was hired by News of the World execs to spy on lawyers who represented, among others, the family of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.

LONDON -- News International has admitted that The News of The World spied on the private lives of two of the most high-profile lawyers acting for phone hacking victims as recently as early this year, in the latest bombshell in the phone-hacking saga.

News International has confirmed that it had sanctioned investigations into two of the lawyers who had brought legal claims against it -- and said the matter was "deeply inappropriate" and was "not condoned by any current executive."

However, the London-based unit of News Corp. also claimed that surveillance "is not illegal."

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The comment came after Derek Webb, a policeman turned private investigator, has told the BBC that he had been hired by News International executives to carry out covert surveillance of phone-hacking lawyers Mark Lewis and Charlotte Harris over a period of 18 months. The surveillance was carried out while James Murdoch was in charge of the newspaper division.

Webb has spoken exclusively to BBC Newsnight reporter Richard Watson in an interview that will not air until late Monday night. But the BBC has released some information about Webb's claims in advance of transmission.

Webb is understood to have decided to speak out because he believes he is owed money and bonus payments by News International.

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The former policeman has told the BBC he was hired in 2010 to gather evidence on Lewis, who acted for the family of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. He investigated the lawyer, his former wife and her daughter, following them and filming their movements.

In January 2011 he was assigned to investigate Harris, the lawyer who represented sports agent Sky Andrew in a phone-hacking case which eventually forced the sacking of News of The World news editor Ian Edmondson. The investigations expert told the BBC he was assigned to find out if Harris was having an affair and carried out video surveillance on Harris and her young children.

It is thought that Webb was investigating the possibility that the lawyers were having affairs in a bid to pressure them into dropping the hacking inquiry.

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Lewis and Harris are among a number of lawyers who have doggedly pursued legal actions against News International, triggering a series of court cases that revealed evidence of illegal activity -- eventually forcing Rupert Murdoch to shut down The News of The World.

In a statement to the BBC, News International said: "News International's enquiries 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 is not condoned by any current executive at the company."

The news comes just a day after it emerged that former News International CEO Rebekah Brooks received a $2.7 million severance settlement and continues to have a chauffeur-driven car and plush London office courtesy of News International.

London's Metropolitan police also revealed last week that almost 6000 people may have been victims of phone-hacking at News International, 2000 more than had been earlier thought.

James Murdoch has been summoned by Parliament to answer more questions about phone-hacking November 10.