LONDON, July 5 — British Prime Minister David Cameron condemned today the alleged hacking of a murdered schoolgirl’s voicemail by the News of the World, part of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, as the scandal closed in on a top executive and Murdoch protégée.
Cameron has so far said little on a long-running phone hacking scandal, in which the newspaper admitted some of its staff listened to cellphone messages of public figures.
It has gathered more steam as his government weighs approval of a controversial takeover of broadcaster BSkyB by Murdoch’s News Corp.
But new suggestions that the paper might have also hampered police and added to the torment of the family by hacking the voicemails of a 13-year-old abducted in 2002 have caused uproar in Britain and moved Cameron to comment.
The kidnap and murder of Milly Dowler was among the most high-profile criminal cases of recent years. Revelations from her family’s lawyer that police were looking into whether journalists manipulated her cellphone account come less than two weeks after her killer was convicted.
“On the question about the really appalling allegations about the telephone of Milly Dowler, if they are true, this is a truly dreadful act,” Cameron told journalists during a visit to Afghanistan today.
Among those facing new questions about their conduct is Rebekah Brooks, now head of News Corp’s UK newspaper arm and editor of the newspaper at the time of the teenager’s death.
She told staff in a memo she would not resign, despite questions from senior politicians and others who said that if she did not know of her journalists’ conduct, she should have.
Brooks wrote: “It is almost too horrific to believe that a professional journalist or even a freelance inquiry agent working on behalf of a member of the News of the World staff could behave in this way.
“If the allegations are proved to be true then I can promise the strongest possible action will be taken as this company will not tolerate such disgraceful behaviour.”
BROOKS UNDER FIRE
Opposition Labour party leader Ed Miliband called for Brooks to consider her position. As well as being a favourite of Murdoch’s, Brooks and the prime minister have been reported to socialise at one another’s Oxfordshire homes.
“Of course she should consider her position, but this goes well beyond one individual. This is about the culture and practices ... going on at that newspaper, News of the World,” Miliband told the BBC.
The lawyer for the Dowler family said yesterday he had learned from police that the schoolgirl’s voicemail messages had been hacked while police were searching for her.
British media have said the newspaper investigator may also have deleted some voicemail messages to make space for more — potentially misleading police and giving false hope to her family that she was still alive and at liberty.
Brooks has until now figured only indirectly in inquiries by police into the hacking of mobile phone mailboxes by investigators hired by the News of the World — whose victims had been thought to be limited to celebrities and politicians.
The escalation of the scandal comes at a key moment in News Corp’s planned multi-billion-dollar takeover of BSkyB, which is due to be approved by the government after a final consultation this week.
Cameron reiterated that the merger should be dealt with separately from the phone hacking investigation.
“The secretary of state for culture, media and sport carries out his role ... without any interference from anyone else in the government and that is one of the reasons I have completely abstracted myself from this process,” he said.
But opposition politician and former deputy prime minister John Prescott, who was told by police his phone may have been hacked, wrote to communications regulator Ofcom to ask it to review the bid and said it was still not too late for the government to halt the deal.
Ofcom has the power to decide whether News Corp is a fit and proper owner of BSkyB but an industry source said it would not do anything until the police investigation into the phone hacking scandal at the News of the World was concluded.
BSkyB shares traded down 0.4 percent at 846.5 pence by 1119 GMT (1819 Malaysian time), underperforming the European media index.
Brooks’s successor at the News of the World Andy Coulson, resigned from the paper over the hacking affair in 2007, although he said he was not involved, and this year quit Cameron’s office as the scandal grew.
Media consultant Steve Hewlett told BBC radio today: “This now looks like an industrial-level activity, which makes editors’ denial that they knew anything about it even more implausible.”
Until now, the phone-hacking investigation has focused on celebrities whose phones were hacked after Brooks handed over to Coulson as editor.
Private detective Glenn Mulcaire was jailed in 2007 for intercepting messages from members of Queen Elizabeth’s royal household in 2005, as was the newspaper’s then royal editor.
News Corp long maintained that the cases were isolated and limited to a few rogue individuals. This year, it finally admitted liability in a few cases and will now pay compensation to victims including actor Sienna Miller.
Others, including actor Jude Law and Manchester United soccer star Ryan Giggs are suing the paper, and the first test cases will be heard early next year.
British police, who have been accused of being sluggish in their investigation, reopened their probe into the hacking scandal this year, and have arrested three journalists so far. — Reuters