London: New facts in the phone-hacking row came to light on Monday as the public inquiry into the scandal began, indicating the scale of unethical and illegal practices allegedly adopted at the now defunct 'News of the World' tabloid owned by embattled media baron Rupert Murdoch.

The Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press was told by Robert Jay, counsel to the inquiry, that Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator who worked for the tabloid, was asked 2,266 times to dig information about individuals.

The police found 690 audio recordings when his offices were raided in 2006. Muclaire intercepted 586 voicemails, intended for 64 people, between 2001 and 2009.

He also made 318 calls to people's voicemail numbers, Jay told the inquiry.

Of the 2,266 times he was asked to find out information, 2,143 were tasked by four journalists, whose names were not revealed on the first day of the hearing.
 
Mulcaire also carried out 38 occasions of 'blagging'(posing as someone else on the phone and asking for personal data).

Jay outlined six categories of press misbehaviour that the inquiry will look at: Electronic surveillance or intrusion; data theft (for example, going through bins or stealing diaries); agent provocateur; payments to witnesses or private investigators; phone and email hacking; catch-all: unfair, unethical and underhand press activities.

Opening the hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice, Justice Leveson warned editors not to victimise individuals who depose before the inquiry and who may criticise their publications.

He said the inquiry would monitor press coverage for any signs of witnesses being targeted.

He said concerns had been raised that the press might target those who spoke out against it during the inquiry.

Justice Leveson aims to conclude the inquiry by the end of September 2012.

He said, "I have absolutely no wish to stifle freedom of speech and expression, but I anticipate that monitoring will take place of press coverage over the months to come.

And if it appears that those concerns are made out, without objective justification, it might be appropriate to draw the conclusion that these vital rights are being abused, which itself would provide evidence of culture, practice and ethics which could be relevant to my ultimate recommendations".

Justice Leveson added, "I fully consider freedom of expression and freedom of the press to be fundamental to our democracy."But that freedom must be exercised with the rights of others in mind".

Stating that the press provided "an essential check on all aspects of public life", he said: "That is why any failure within the media affects all of us.

"At the heart of this inquiry therefore may be one simple question - who guards the guardians?"

Robert Jay said, "The power of the press may be one reason why politicians, at least arguably, have not been overly keen to take steps to call it into question," he said.

The inquiry, he said, had not yet seen any examples of phone hacking by media that could "even start to be justified on public interest grounds", and added: "A constant theme will be the alleged subterranean influences operated by the press on the democratic process.”

(Agencies)