LONDON — Britain’s tabloid phone hacking scandal dominated the airways Wednesday as it swelled to allegedly involve more missing schoolgirls and the families of London terror victims. Lawmakers held an emergency debate, companies hastily pulled their ads and the prime minister demanded two new inquiries.
News International, the British linchpin of Rupert Murdoch’s global News Corp. media empire, was under intense pressure due to its News of the World tabloid, which has admitted hacking into the phones of celebrities but now stands accused of possibly interfering with police investigations into missing girls who were found murdered.
The News of the World had reportedly hacked into the cell phone of missing 13-year-old Milly Dowler in 2002, deleting messages and giving her parents and police false hope that the girl was still alive.
Milly had been abducted and murdered, and the search for her transfixed Britain at the time.
Prime Minister David Cameron called for inquiries into the News of the World’s behavior as well as into the failure of the original police inquiry to uncover the latest allegations now emerging.
London’s Metropolitan Police, meanwhile, confirmed they were investigating evidence from News International that some officers illegally accepted payments from its tabloid in return for information.
“It is absolutely disgusting what has taken place,” Cameron said, speaking in the House of Commons shortly before an emergency debate opened Wednesday. He said the scandal had entered a new phase now that it included murder and possibly terror victims, but added any inquiry into the News of the World would have to wait until the police investigation was concluded.
The hacking case broadened with revelations that the tabloid’s operatives are also suspected of hacking into the phones of victims of the July 7, 2005 terrorist attacks on London’s transit system that killed 52 people.
Graham Foulkes, father of one of the 2005 victims, said police told him he was on a list of names of potential hacking victims.
“I just felt stunned and horrified,” Foulkes told The Associated Press. “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 plans to mourn his son on Thursday’s anniversary of the attack, said a completely independent investigation is needed because new information that surfaced Wednesday shows 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 said Rebekah Brooks, the one-time News of the World editor who is now chief executive of News International, must resign immediately. Brooks has said she didn’t know about the hacking and will remain in charge.
“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.”
Foulkes said he wants to meet Murdoch in person about the scandal. Simon Greenberg, News International’s director of corporate affairs, told the BBC that a meeting was “something we would consider.”
“I doubt he’s brave enough to face me,” said Foulkes.
Several companies hastily pulled ads from the News of the World amid the public disgust.
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 in the tabloid.
Bloggers have urged advertisers to boycott the News of the World and all other media outlets of its owners. Mumsnet — a popular online community for mothers — on Tuesday removed ads from broadcaster Sky after its members complained.
U.K. tabloids have a history of harassing royals, sports stars and celebrities, eavesdropping and paying even the most tangential sources for information about stars’ sex lives and drug problems. But the Dowler allegations amounted to interfering in a police investigation to seek tabloid headlines.
British media also reported that the parents of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, schoolgirls murdered in a sensational 2002 case, had been informed by police that they were investigating whether the News of the World also hacked their telephones.
Glenn Mulcaire, a private detective employed by News of the World, and former News of the World reporter Clive Goodman have already served prison sentences for hacking into the phones of royal officials. Mulcaire issued an apology Tuesday to anyone who had been hurt by his actions, but said there was no intention of interfering with a police investigation.
“Working for the News of the World was never easy. There was relentless pressure. There was a constant demand for results,” Mulcaire said.
The intense attention on the News of the World comes at a sensitive moment for Murdoch, who is seeking British government clearance to launch a full, multibillion-pound takeover of British Sky Broadcasting.
Britain’s Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has insisted he will decide the issue purely on competition grounds, without regard to the behavior of the News of the World. But some members of Parliament are linking the two issues and demanding that Hunt block a takeover.
Cameron on Wednesday again rejected calls to refer — and thus delay — any BSkyB takeover by referring the issue to the Competition Commission. Cameron and his wife are friends with Brooks, the News International chief.
The rapidly expanding phone hacking case is also an embarrassment for London’s Metropolitan Police, who essentially accepted the paper’s claim that Mulcaire and Goodman were simply rogue employees whose actions did not reflect company policy.