LONDON (AP) — Britain’s phone hacking scandal reached a new intensity Wednesday as the scope of tabloid intrusion into private voicemails became more clear: Murder victims. Terror victims. Film stars. Sports figures. Politicians. The royal family’s entourage.
Almost no one, it seems, was safe from the reporters and investigators toiling for a tabloid determined to beat its rivals, whatever it takes.
The focal point was the News of the World tabloid, which faced a growing advertising boycott from major firms over the alleged phone hacking, and the top executives of its parent companies: Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International, and her boss, media potentate Rupert Murdoch.
Murdoch on Wednesday released a statement indicating that Brooks would continue to lead his British newspaper operation despite calls for her resignation.
The breathtaking scandal, which has already touched the offices of Prime Minister David Cameron and the London Police, widened as News International provided police with evidence that the tabloid had made illegal payments to police officers in its quest for information. Possible victims cited those payments to police as the reasons why an earlier police inquiry did not begin to turn up the extent of the hacking.
The list of potential victims grew as well. New revelations emerged Wednesday that the phones of relatives of people killed in the July 7, 2005 terrorist attacks on London’s transit system, as well those tied to slain schoolgirls, may also have been targeted.
The true extent of the hacking is not yet clear — and may not be known for months as inquiries unfold.
Graham Foulkes, whose son died in the terrorist attacks, was told by police that he was on a list of potential hacking victims.
“I just felt stunned and horrified,” Foulkes told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “I find it hard to believe someone could be so wicked and so evil, and that someone could work for an organization that even today is trying to defend what they see as normal practices.”
Foulkes, who was to mourn his son Thursday on the sixth anniversary of the attack, said a completely independent investigation was needed because new information showed that the police were compromised by accepting “bribes” from the tabloid.
“The police are now implicated,” he said. “The prime minister must have an independent inquiry and all concerned should be prosecuted.”
Foulkes also demanded the resignation of Brooks, the former News of the World editor who is now chief executive of News International, the U.K. newspaper division of Murdoch’s News Corp. media empire. News Corp. owns a swath of newspapers, including News of the World, the Sun, and the Wall Street Journal.
“She’s gotta go,” Foulkes said. “She cannot say, oops, sorry, we’ve been caught out. Of course she’s responsible for the ethos and practices of her department. Her position is untenable.”
Yet Brooks, one of the most powerful women in British journalism, maintains she did not know about the phone hacking and has declared she will continue to direct the company.
Foulkes also challenged Murdoch — a global media titan with vast newspaper, television, movie and book publishing interests in the United States, Britain, Australia and elsewhere — to meet with him to discuss the gross intrusion into his privacy.
“I doubt he’s brave enough to face me,” said Foulkes.
In Parliament, lawmakers held an emergency debate to call for the prosecution of those responsible for hacking into the phone of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old murder victim, and others.
The Dowler case touched a raw national nerve because the paper is accused of hampering the police investigation by deleting some of Milly’s phone messages, and giving them and her parents false hope that she was still alive after she was abducted in 2002.
Cameron called for inquiries into the News of the World’s behavior as well as into the failure of the police’s original phone hacking inquiry, which did not uncover the allegations now emerging.
“We are no longer talking here about politicians and celebrities, we are talking about murder victims, potentially terrorist victims, having their phones hacked into,” Cameron said. “It is absolutely disgusting, what has taken place, and I think everyone in this House and indeed this country will be revolted by what they have heard.”
Ordinary Britons were equally horrified.
“It’s disgusting,” said Danny Wright, 25, of Liverpool. “It’s heartless and inconsiderate that they’d do it to victims and family of murder victims.”
He said it was wrong to hack into celebrities’ phones but far worse to do it to victims’ families “because of what they’ve been through.”
According to opposition Labour Party lawmaker Tom Watson, an April 2002 story in the News of the World made a specific reference to messages that had been left on Milly’s voicemail.
Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, said the Dowler case was crucial.
“That’s why the case has gotten so big,” he said. “If celebrities or politicians have their phones intercepted, that’s one thing. But the idea that they were doing this while a little girl was missing and a police inquiry was going on makes it a really gross intrusion.”
Satchwell said the hacking has become politically sensitive not only because Cameron’s communications chief Andy Coulson was forced to resign earlier this year because of his previous stewardship of the tabloid, but also because lawmakers opposed to Murdoch’s growing media power in Britain want to slow down his takeover of other properties.
He said the hacking of Dowler’s phone was revealed just as government regulators are preparing to decide whether Murdoch can take full control of British Sky Broadcasting.
“You have to ask yourself why that happened right now,” Satchwell said, cautioning that the public has yet to see clear evidence of illegal phone hacking except for two News of the World employees — reporter Clive Goodman and investigator Glenn Mulcaire — who have already served time in jail.
When police arrested Mulcaire, they seized 11,000 pages of notes, including the phone numbers of many suspected hacking victims. But police, still investigating, have in most cases not yet made clear who was actually hacked.
News of the World executives have admitted wrongdoing and offered cash settlements to a number of its victims.
The scandal has its roots in the tabloid’s efforts to scoop its competitors with news about the royal family. Representatives of the royals complained to police in late 2005 with suspicions that some of their voicemails had been hacked into.
Tabloid executives claimed at the time the two were rogue employees but that assertion has been undermined by a series of arrests at the newspaper earlier this year and by the company’s willingness to settle with other victims.
The tabloid’s parent company, News International, has insisted it is working closely with police and has a zero-tolerance policy for any wrongdoing or sketchy tactics.
Several companies hastily pulled ads Wednesday from the News of the World amid the public uproar.
Virgin Holidays canceled several ads due to run in the Sunday newspaper this week. Car makers Ford UK and Vauxhall and Halifax bank also said they have suspended advertising.
Mumsnet — a popular online community for mothers — removed ads from Murdoch broadcaster Sky after its members complained about the tabloid hacking.
Robert Barr, Danica Kirka, Meera Selva, David Stringer and Cassandra Vinograd contributed to this report.