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More accusations of cellphone hacking attempts raise heat on British tabloid

Accusations surface of possible hacking efforts by the News of the World into the cellphones of relatives of victims of criminal and terrorist attacks. Prime minister backs calls for public inquiries.

July 07, 2011|By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times
  • A woman speaks on her phone outside the News International building in east London. British lawmakers held an emergency debate on Wednesday over a phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World, a newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch.
A woman speaks on her phone outside the News International building in east… (Reuters )

Reporting from London — Lawmakers, advertisers and outraged citizens turned up the heat on British tabloid News of the World as more accusations surfaced Wednesday of possible hacking attempts by the paper into cellphones belonging to the relatives of victims of criminal and terrorist attacks.

Prime Minister David Cameron backed calls for public inquiries into the reporting practices and ethics of journalists at the News of the World and into why a previous police investigation failed to uncover the allegations now emerging. But those inquiries would have to wait until the current police investigation is completed, Cameron said.

The British leader expressed revulsion at the possibility that a private investigator hired by the tabloid had targeted the phones of family members of three murdered English schoolgirls and victims of the 2005 suicide attacks on the London transport system, which killed 52 people six years ago Thursday. Previously, the hacking allegations had centered on the cellphones of movie stars, athletes and other famous figures.

"We are no longer talking here about politicians and celebrities. We are talking about murder victims, potentially terrorist victims, having their phones hacked into. It is absolutely disgusting," Cameron told Parliament, which convened a three-hour emergency debate on the issue.

Cameron's comments came on a day of multiple developments in a scandal that has morphed virtually overnight from a low-boil affair involving the rich and famous into Topic A of the national conversation.

Rupert Murdoch, the billionaire businessman whose global media empire includes the News of the World, moved to contain what has become a huge public relations nightmare, issuing a statement Wednesday that called the alleged hacking "deplorable and unacceptable."

He reiterated the commitment of News International, the parent company of the News of the World, to cooperate with the police investigation and expressed his confidence in the leadership of Rebekah Brooks, the head of News International and one of his closest confidants.

But Murdoch's assurances are unlikely to dampen the public anger that is engulfing his British operations and that could seriously threaten his attempt to expand his footprint on the media landscape here by taking over satellite broadcaster BSkyB.

A clutch of companies announced Wednesday that they were withdrawing their advertisements in the News of the World, including Halifax bank and carmakers Ford, Vauxhall and Mitsubishi. On Facebook and Twitter, ordinary Britons urged their compatriots to boycott Murdoch's properties such as the Times of London and the Sun, Britain's bestselling tabloid.

And pressure mounted for Brooks to resign or be removed. She was editor of the News of the World in 2002 when the private eye hired by the paper allegedly intercepted voicemail messages left on the phone of a 13-year-old girl who was kidnapped and later found killed.

"She should take responsibility and stand down," Ed Miliband, the leader of the opposition Labor Party, said in the House of Commons. "These events show a systematic set of abuses which demonstrate the use of power without responsibility in our country."

Brooks denies knowledge of the alleged hacking and has pledged to get to the bottom of what happened in 2002. Critics scoff that she is therefore investigating her own conduct.

News International said in a statement that it was zeroing in on who commissioned or authorized private investigator Glenn Mulcaire to hack into the phone of kidnap victim Milly Dowler.

The company has also reportedly turned over evidence that the News of the World paid police officials thousands of dollars for information under Andy Coulson, Brooks' successor as editor. Coulson later became Cameron's chief communications aide at 10 Downing St. but stepped down early this year when his tenure at the News of the World came under renewed scrutiny.

Scotland Yard, stung by accusations that it carried out only a halfhearted investigation when the hacking allegations first came to light several years ago, has devoted dozens of officers to the current probe.

Murdoch's bid for control of BSkyB is under consideration by the government, which has indicated its willingness to let the takeover go through. A preliminary decision is due in the coming days over whether the takeover would violate rules on media competition.

henry.chu@latimes.com

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