LONDON, July 10 (Reuters) - Illegal voicemail hacking was "standard practice" at Britain's best-selling Sunday newspaper, and then covered up by executives, according to a senior police officer who was asked to investigate the matter in 2009.
After years of allegations about the News of the World's tapping of voicemails of celebrities and politicians, the scandal reached a tipping point this week when it was alleged that in 2002 the paper had listened to the voicemail of Milly Dowler, a missing schoolgirl who was later found murdered, and even deleted some of her messages to make room for more.
Assistant Police Commissioner John Yates told the Sunday Telegraph newspaper that senior News of the World executives had failed to cooperate with police during a 2005-06 investigation into the practice.
"The only reason you now have a new investigation is because the News of the World produced new material and new evidence," he was quoted as saying.
He said the new investigation had been prompted by "material that was completely available to them in 2005-06".
"It makes their assurances in 2005-06 look very shaky."
He acknowledged that the reputation of London's Metropolitan Police had been "very damaged" by its failures to investigate more fully, adding: "I have regrettably said the initial inquiry was a success. Clearly now that looks very different."
"In fairness, in 2005-06 and even in 2009 (when Yates failed to reopen the inquiry), did we think hacking was standard practice? I don't think anybody knew. Now it's different."
Allegations that a growing list of victims included relatives of Britain's war dead and of those killed in the 2005 London transport bombings outraged readers and caused many firms to pull advertising, prompting a decision to shut the paper.
In the coming days police will question Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International, owner of the News of the World and News Corp's other British newspapers, the Sunday Telegraph reported, quoting a senior News International source. Police declined to comment.
It was under Brooks's editorship that an investigator working for the newspaper is said to have hacked into Dowler's voicemail. Brooks says she did not know about the hacking.
The scandal has also brought to light accusations that journalists working for Murdoch and others illegally paid police for information.
Murdoch said on Saturday that Brooks had his full support and no management changes were planned as a result of the scandal.
Prime Minister David Cameron has announced two enquiries relating to the scandal. One of them, led by a judge, will look at the way the police investigated the allegations against News of the World and the relationship between newspapers and the police.
© 2013 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.