On Sunday 28 August 2011 the “Sunday Times” reported that Operation Weeting police officers have warned Robert Thompson, one of the killers of James Bulger, this his telephone may have been hacked by the “News of the World”.   It is reported that details relating to him and others close to him appear in the papers being examined by the investigation.   The story is by David James Smith, author of a book about the Bulger case, The Sleep of Reason and was, surprisingly, not front page news.  It was picked up in the Metro but has received very little media attention.

Mr Smith draws attention to a series of “exclusive” stories about Robert Thompson published in the “News of the World” between the years 2002.  For example, in June 2002 it claimed he had been “rushed to hospital” after taking an overdose; in January 2003 the newspaper reported that he was starting a course at art college; in April 2004 he was said to have a job and was “living in the lap of luxury in a trendy apartment block on Merseyside” in November 2004 the tabloid’s exclusive was that Denise Fergus (the mother of James Bulger) had come face to face with her son’s killer.

But the important aspect of the story is not that another person’s phone was hacked, but that the “News of the World” were able to obtain the mobile telephone number of an individual who had been given a “secret identity” – known only to a very small number of people – to protect him.

In 2001 the High Court had granted a wide ranging injunction to prevent the identification of the two individual who had been convicted of the murder of James Bulger ([2001] EWHC 32 (QB)).  This was granted because of the “clear and credible” risk to their lives from mob vengeance or revenge attacks.  It was accepted that if Robert Thompson’s identity had become public knowledge, the exposure could potentially have put his life at risk.  We have previously posted the terms of this injunction.  It appears that anyone seeking to obtain Robert Thompson’s mobile number would have been in breach of it.

The question is: how did the “News of the World” obtain the mobile telephone number of an individual who had been given a “secret identity”?  One obvious possible source is the police.  Serious questions have already been raised about the leaking of information by corrupt police officers to the “News of the World”.  Scotland Yard’s “Operation Elveden” is now investigating allegations of corrupt payments to police officers.  It seems likely that this investigation will now be considering how the “News of the World” was able to find Robert Thompson’s number and then hack his telephone in order to run stories which, potentially, put him in danger.