LONDON — British police on Tuesday arrested two journalists linked with the country's top selling tabloid as part of an investigation into phone hacking of celebrities, politicians and royals, officials said.
Metropolitan Police said two men aged 50 and 42 were taken into custody in London on suspicion of unlawfully intercepting voicemail messages. They declined to name the men, who were later released on bail, but a lawyer for the tabloid's former news editor, Ian Edmondson, identified his client as one of the two.
The second man in custody is the News of The World's chief reporter, Neville Thurlbeck, according to a person familiar with the matter. The person, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter, confirmed that Thurlbeck was still employed by the tabloid.
One of Rupert Murdoch's best-performing papers, The News of The World was thrust into the center of the phone hacking scandal after a reporter and a private investigator in its employment were caught illegally eavesdropping on the phones of the British royal family's entourage. The pair were convicted in 2007, but News of the World executives have long insisted that they were the only ones responsible for the tapping operation, a claim dismissed as implausible by the paper's critics.
Edmondson's lawyer, Eddie Parladorio, said his client voluntarily went to police Tuesday. The tabloid fired Edmondson in January over the scandal.
It would not be the first time Thurlbeck's name has been linked to the scandal. In 2009, a journalist for the Guardian alleged in evidence to lawmakers that the reporter had received transcripts of intercepted calls.
According to minutes from evidence given to the House of Commons' culture, media and sport committee, British lawmakers were shown an email stating "This is the transcript for Neville" that was apparently sent by a junior News of The World reporter to the private investigator who was later convicted of illegal eavesdropping. The lawmakers heard that police said there was not enough evidence available to interview Thurlbeck.
The arrests are the first since police reopened a criminal inquiry into phone tapping at the tabloid following fresh allegations from celebrities, including actress Sienna Miller, who have accused the paper of illegal hacking and harassment.
In a statement, the tabloid's parent company News International said it is continuing to cooperate fully with the ongoing police investigation – which was reopened when the company went to the police with fresh information.
"News International has consistently reiterated that it will not tolerate wrongdoing and is committed to acting on evidence," the statement said.
The weekly tabloid has a circulation of more than 3 million and thrives on celebrity exclusives. The subjects of those stories have long puzzled over how the paper got its inside information. Many thought they had their answer when news of the phone hacking emerged.
The scandal has wound its way into the highest levels of British society – even prompting the resignation of the prime minister's head of communications, who was accused of sanctioning a widespread culture of illegal phone hacking during his tenure as editor. While Andy Coulson has denied any knowledge of the hacking, he resigned in January saying that continued coverage of events connected to his old job at the tabloid made it difficult "to give the 110 percent needed" to lead David Cameron's communications team.
An initial police inquiry turned up thousands of numbers of potential phone-tapping targets, including celebrities, sports stars and senior politicians. The hacking worked by exploiting lax cell phone security to tap into targets' phones and eavesdrop on their voicemail messages.
The police investigation ended in only two convictions – royal reporter Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, both of whom received several months in prison for intercepting messages left for royal officials, including some from Princes William and Harry.
The newspaper maintained it was an isolated incident, but last year, former News of The World reporters were quoted by The New York Times and The Guardian newspapers as saying former editor Coulson knew about the phone hacking, which they claimed was widespread at the newspaper.
Police reopened the investigation amid allegations they were initially too easy on the paper.