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Originally published July 5, 2011 at 7:51 PM | Page modified July 6, 2011 at 12:40 PM

British tabloid's alleged hacking of slain girl's voice mail stirs anger

Revulsion swept the nation Tuesday amid allegations that a sensationalist tabloid owned by media baron Rupert Murdoch intercepted and tampered with voice mails left for a kidnapped 13-year-old girl whose body was found in the woods.

Los Angeles Times

quotes Fair and balanced! Read more
quotes Here's hoping that this scandal puts Murdoch's filthy rag out of business. Just to... Read more
quotes In American there are no concerns that too much power is being concentrated in the... Read more

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LONDON — For months, Britain's scandal over scoop-hungry reporters hacking into cellphones of celebrities and politicians drew shrugs from the general public, which viewed the affair as a rarefied dispute between the rich and famous and those who write about them.

Not anymore.

Revulsion swept the nation Tuesday amid allegations that a sensationalist tabloid owned by media baron Rupert Murdoch intercepted and tampered with voice mails left for a kidnapped 13-year-old girl whose body was found in the woods.

Britons from Prime Minister David Cameron on down declared disgust over the accusations, the latest to hit Murdoch's weekly News of the World.

The disturbing turn in a long-running scandal has raised troubling questions about Murdoch's relationship with the British political establishment and police. It comes at a particularly sensitive time for the Australian-born Murdoch, who also operates Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post and the iPad-targeted online app The Daily in the United States, and is seeking political approval to expand his massive media empire in Britain.

News International, the British subsidiary of Murdoch's News Corp., has been scrambling for months to contain the phone-hacking affair, in part to make his bid for British satellite TV company BSkyB more palatable.

One of Murdoch's closest confidants and senior executives, Rebekah Brooks, now is under pressure to resign. And Murdoch's bid for majority ownership of BSkyB is under scrutiny amid concerns that too much power is being concentrated in the hands of a man blamed for degrading journalism, politics and public life.

The new developments also heighten pressure on police and politicians to show greater resolve in confronting News International. Critics say authorities have been too timid in their investigation for fear of angering Murdoch.

A News International spokesman said the company was cooperating fully with police.

Until Tuesday, the scandal mostly involved athletes, politicians and movie stars such as Jude Law who were among thousands of possible victims of phone hacking by Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator hired by the News of the World to ferret out information and scoops. Mulcaire and the tabloid's royal-family reporter were jailed in 2007 for illegally accessing private voice mails, including messages left by Princes William and Harry for their aides.

A new investigation by Scotland Yard, criticized for going easy on the tabloid the first time in order to preserve a long-cozy relationship with the paper, has resulted in the arrest of several more reporters and editors — and in the startling revelation that first began to emerge Monday night.

In 2002, a teenager named Milly Dowler vanished in southern England, a disappearance that made national headlines and sparked a major manhunt. Her parents tearfully pleaded for her safe return, including in a News of the World interview, but the 13-year-old's remains were later found in a forest. A nightclub bouncer was convicted of her murder last month.

According to the Guardian newspaper, police have evidence that the News of the World hacked into Milly's voice mails after she vanished, publishing at least one story based on the information gleaned.

Making matters worse, Mulcaire allegedly deleted some messages to free up space for more incoming calls — in the process interfering with a police investigation.

The deletions cruelly raised the Dowlers' hopes that their daughter was alive. But Milly Dowler likely was dead by then.

"This is a truly dreadful act and a truly dreadful situation," Prime Minister Cameron said Tuesday.

The Dowlers' lawyer, Mark Lewis, said the family was likely to take legal action against the News of the World. They were told of the alleged hacking in April, when the trial of Milly's killer was under way.

"Every parent's worst nightmare is happening," Lewis told the BBC. "Their daughter's been murdered, the prosecution is taking place and then they're suddenly told that there is more to come — pressure on top of pressure, relentless, relentless grief for them."

Media commentator Roy Greenslade said the new allegations have pushed the scandal onto a bigger stage, with Murdoch and News International now the target of widespread opprobrium.

"It's something which resonates with the public," Greenslade said. "... This is something that people can identify as being an intrusion into the privacy of [ordinary] people in difficult circumstances."

The News of the World also faces tough questions as to whether Brooks, its editor at the time, knew about the alleged phone hacking.

She now heads News International. In a statement to her staff Tuesday, she said she was "sickened" to learn Milly's voice mails apparently had been intercepted but gave no indication she would resign, despite mounting calls on her to do so.

Murdoch's properties also include the Times of London and the Sun, Britain's best-selling tabloid, a right-wing daily whose political backing can spell success or failure for a candidate or party. That has made British politicians leery of alienating Murdoch and his subordinates.

"MPs (members of Parliament) and especially government ministers have always been running scared of Murdoch, not necessarily because of him as a person but because of the power of a media empire that has somewhere around 10 million readers a day," said Mike Jempson, head of MediaWise, an organization that promotes media ethics. "They have put all their efforts into currying favor rather than expecting more transparency and more responsibility from his papers."

To critics, Murdoch's British publications have demeaned public discourse through such practices as paying for information, setting up stings or traps (complete with hidden microphones and cameras) of public figures, running prurient stories and pandering to the lowest common denominator.

(U.S. newspapers in general and The Seattle Times in particular neither pay for information nor allow reporters to break the law.)

News International is trying to reduce the fallout by persuading hacking victims who have sued the company to forgo trial and accept a financial settlement. Actress Sienna Miller, a highest-profile target, accepted a formal apology and $160,000 in damages last month.

The hacking scandal has become a major headache for Cameron, the British leader.

His former communications director, Andy Coulson, stepped down this year after reporters raised questions about his tenure as the News of the World's editor when Mulcaire and the royal-family reporter were jailed in 2007.

Cameron also is a personal friend of Brooks, who invited him to her home near Oxford over Christmas.

Seattle Times staff contributed

to this report.

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