Lawmakers debate Murdoch press phone-hacking claims

British lawmakers will hold an emergency debate on Wednesday over a phone-hacking scandal at a top-selling newspaper that has prompted calls for the resignation of a well-connected Rupert Murdoch executive and provoked a public outcry that could damage the paper’s sales.

Revelations that the News of the World may have accessed the voicemail messages of crime victims — including an abducted 13-year-old girl later found murdered — have caused outrage in Britain and brought to a head a long-running saga previously thought to have targeted only celebrities and other high-profile figures.

At least one company, carmaker Ford, said it would pull adverts from the News of the World until it saw how it deals with the affair. Other companies said they were reviewing the situation.

News International, which publishes Murdoch’s stable of British newspaper titles including the Times and the Sun, said new information had recently been provided to police.

“Full and continuing cooperation has been provided to the police since the current investigation started in January 2011,” it said in a statement.

“Well understood arrangements are in place to ensure that any material of importance to which they are entitled is provided to them.

“We cannot comment any further due to the ongoing investigations.”

Broadcasters and newspapers rushed to publish new details of a saga that has forced the resignation of the prime minister’s communications director and has now come to the door of Rebekah Brooks, Murdoch’s confidante and head of News Corp’s British newspaper arm. She is a frequent guest at the country home of Prime Minister David Cameron.

Questions for the prime minister
The Daily Telegraph newspaper reported that News of the World journalists may have attempted to access voice messages left on phones as relatives waited for information about their loved ones in the aftermath of the London bombings in 2005, when British Islamists carried out suicide bombings on the transport network, killing 52 people.

The Independent newspaper said Brooks commissioned a search, on a personal matter, by one of the private investigators used by the News of the World to trace the family of the murdered schoolgirl, Milly Dowler.

The Guardian said police investigating the phone-hacking claims were turning their attention to high-profile cases involving the murder or abduction of children since 2001.

The parents of two murdered schoolgirls in another high-profile case dating back to Brooks’ editorship of the News of the World have been visited by police investigating the phone-hacking affair.

Cameron is likely to face intense questioning over the issue at the weekly prime minister’s questions session in parliament on Wednesday, particularly his friendship with Brooks and her successor Andy Coulson, later his head of communications.

Cameron said on Tuesday he was “appalled” by the allegations that in 2002 the murdered schoolgirl’s voicemail messages had been listened to and deleted by a News of the World investigator, misleading police and her family.

Cameron’s government is weighing approval of News Corp’s takeover bid for British broadcaster BSkyB . The hacking revelations are unlikely to derail that deal since approvals are focused on whether the takeover will give Murdoch too much power over the British media. The government has said it does not believe it will.

Murdoch transformed the British press landscape in the 1980s during Margaret Thatcher’s years as prime minister, bringing in new technology and confronting printers’ and journalists’ trade unions. He commands audiences with global leaders and, through his media, is seen as one of the world’s most powerful men.

Brooks, who has worked for Murdoch for nearly half her life, was previously seen as untouchable because of her close relationship with the News Corp chairperson and chief executive.

But popular pressure could prove her undoing if readers, who had largely shrugged off news that investigators accessed the phone messages of royals, footballers and celebrities to break stories, start to desert the Sunday paper.

Facebook and Twitter campaigns have sprung up in the wake of the latest allegation encouraging readers and adverstisers to boycott the News of the World.

Sales of News Corp’s Sun newspaper never recovered in the city of Liverpool after it offended football fans over false accusations made about their behaviour during a stadium disaster more than 20 years ago in which 96 people died. – Reuters

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