Scandal Grows in Britain Over Hacking of Girl’s Cell

Sarah Lyall and Alan Cowell

New allegations emerged on Wednesday in a scandal over phone-hacking by News Corporation  newspapers in Britain, threatening to draw in Prime Minister David Cameron as political pressure mounted on Rebekah Brooks, a top executive of the company.

Emma Innocenti | Getty Images

A furor has been growing in England for months following disclosures that journalists from the News of the World, a mass-circulation Sunday tabloid, hacked into the voicemail messages of celebrities and other prominent people. But, this week, the extent of the alleged hacking has broadened dramatically with reports that the newspaper hacked the cellphone of a 13-year-old girl who was abducted and murdered in 2002, when Ms. Brooks was its editor.

Additionally, British news reports said, Scotland Yard detectives were also investigating whether the phones of some families of victims of the bombings of three London subway trains and a double-decker bus in July 2005 had also been hacked.

On Wednesday, the BBC reported that News International, the News Corp’s British newspaper division, of which Ms. Brooks is now chief executive, had passed material to the police relating to emails that seemed to show that payments made to the police for information had been authorized by Andy Coulson, a former editor of The News of the World who later became Mr. Cameron’s head of communications.

Mr. Coulson was Ms. Brooks’s deputy at The News of the World in 2002 and later moved into the top editor’s role.

He then joined Mr. Cameron’s staff but resigned in January as questions over the hacking scandal persisted. In his resignation statement, Mr. Coulson reiterated that he had been unaware of the hacking, but said that the scandal had proved too distracting for him to do his job.

Parliament has scheduled an extraordinary three-hour debate on the issue later Wednesday after the weekly session called Prime Minister’s Questions when opponents have a half-hour opportunity to grill the British leader.

With the scandal broadening this week, switching focus from celebrities to ordinary people seized by tragedy, prominent politicians chastised both the newspaper company and Ms. Brooks. Ford Motor , meanwhile, suspended advertising in The News of the World.

Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition Labour Party, said Tuesday that Ms. Brooks should “consider her conscience and consider her position” after the disclosures.

“It wasn’t a rogue reporter,” Mr. Miliband said. “It wasn’t just one individual. This was a systematic series of things that happened, and what I want from executives at News International is people to start taking responsibility for this.”

Prime Minister Cameron took time out from a visit to British troops in Afghanistan to lament what he called a “truly dreadful situation.” The police, he added, “should investigate this without any fear, without any favor, without any worry about where the evidence should lead them.”

Late Tuesday, The Guardian reported that the police would review every highly publicized murder, kidnapping or assault involving a child since 2001 for evidence of phone hacking. That would include the notorious case of Madeleine McCann, the three-year-old who disappeared while her family was on vacation in Portugal in 2007.

In another development, Channel 4 reported on Tuesday that Ms. Brooks met with the police in 2002 over accusations that the tabloid had placed a senior Metropolitan Police detective under surveillance.

In his remarks in Afghanistan, Mr. Cameron did not mention Ms. Brooks, but his comments were notable because, like other British politicians, he has cultivated social connections with News Corp executives like Ms. Brooks and Rupert Murdoch, the chief executive of the company. Mr. Cameron, along with Gordon Brown, the Labour prime minister at the time, was a guest at the reception following Ms. Brooks’s marriage to her second husband, Charlie Brooks, in 2009.

Ms. Brooks vowed to “pursue the facts with vigor and integrity,” saying she had no intention of quitting.

“I am aware of the speculation about my position,” she said in a memo to News International employees. “Therefore it is important you all know that as chief executive, I am determined to lead the company to ensure we do the right thing and resolve these serious issues.”

Some of the latest allegations center on one of the most sensational Fleet Street stories of the last decade, the disappearance of Milly Dowler in 2002. The case was the subject of many tabloid front pages, culminating last month in the conviction of Levi Bellfield, a former nightclub doorman, on charges of kidnapping and murder.

“The Milly Dowler story has taken this from an issue for people who are concerned about media ethics to one that is of broader concern to the general public,” said Tim Luckhurst, a journalism professor at the University of Kent. “News Corporation thought they could put a lid on this, and this has blown the lid right off.”

According to Mark Lewis, a lawyer for the Dowler family, The News of the World not only intercepted messages left on Milly Dowler’s phone by her increasingly frantic family, but also deleted some of those messages when her voice mailbox became full—thus making room for new ones and listening to those in turn. This confused investigators and gave false hope to Milly’s relatives, who believed it showed she was still alive and deleting the messages herself, Mr. Lewis said.

Public revulsion over the affair has been so intense that a private investigator at the center of the phone hacking, Glenn Mulcaire, felt compelled to provide a statement to The Guardian on Tuesday evening, his first public comment in the five years since the scandal broke. In it he apologized “to anybody who was hurt or upset,” and said he was speaking out because of the “vilification” he and his family had been subjected to in the past 24 hours.

Mr. Mulcaire, who worked for The News of the World and served prison time for his role in hacking the phones of members of the royal family, blamed “relentless pressure” at the paper for his mistakes, saying “there was a constant demand for results.”

Ms. Brooks, in her memo, said she had had no knowledge of phone hacking on her watch. There has long been speculation that other British papers may have engaged in similar tactics. So widespread was the practice that even Ms. Brooks, in a surprising twist, is apparently among the victims of phone hacking.

News International said last month that Ms. Brooks had been informed by the police that her voicemail messages had been intercepted by Mr. Mulcaire.

The hacking apparently took place around 2005, when Ms. Brooks was editor of another News Corp tabloid, The Sun, and when there was considerable interest in her personal life. In November 2005, she was detained by the police in a domestic dispute with a British actor named Ross Kemp, her husband at the time. Ms. Brooks, then known under her maiden name, Rebekah Wade, was not charged, and the two later divorced.