British police said on Wednesday it would contact thousands of people whose cellphones may have been targeted by the News of the World tabloid, an indication of the scale of the scandal at the heart of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire.
Police have long insisted only a small number of people were believed to have been have been spied upon by the tabloid, which employed a private detective to break into the voice mail boxes of the paper’s targets and eavesdrop on their private messages.
However, that contention has been challenged by lawmakers, fellow journalists and former employees of the News of the World, who have claimed that the practice was widespread.
There have also been allegations that police were hiding the full scale of the phone hacking operation for fear of jeopardizing its relationship with the politically powerful tabloid.
The police have denied those claims, but the force has long been cagey about who exactly was targeted — and how many individuals were involved. Alleged victims of the hacking include model Elle MacPherson and actress Sienna Miller, and some have complained that police only gave them evidence reluctantly — fueling allegations of a cover-up.
Police said they were taking a “fresh approach” to informing people whose names appeared in documents taken from the News of the World’s private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire.
“With this new investigation, we will be as open as we can be and will show them all the information we hold about them, while giving them the opportunity to tell us anything that may be of concern to them,” Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers said.
Police have previously said about 3,000 cellphone numbers were recovered over the course of their investigation into the hacking, although they cautioned that did not necessarily mean that they were all targeted. Akers made clear that every one of the people connected to those numbers would be informed.
“In time, we will ... make contact with everyone who had some of their personal contact details found in the documents,” Akers said.
Former British deputy prime minister John Prescott, who believes the tabloid used phone hacking to get a story about his extramarital affair, said that in a meeting with Akers on Wednesday he was told police now had “significant new evidence” relating to his claim that he had been a hacking victim.
“I now look forward to the police finally uncovering the truth,” he said in a statement.