British phone hacking scandal becoming 'a firestorm'

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Britain has been absorbed by an internal media and political scandal that has dominated national and international headlines over the past 10 days. The issue has to do with the alleged criminal methods used to gather news at one of the country's leading newspapers.

The scandal over the behavior of private detectives, senior executives and reporters at the leading Sunday newspaper, the News of the World, has now moved beyond the paper, its newspaper group News International (NI) and its senior executives. The issue has now ensnared the police force, two leading political parties and British prime minister David Cameron.

NI is coming under increasing political pressure, following revelations last week that the company's largest-circulated British newspaper, the News of the World, had commissioned private detectives to hack into voicemail messages on the mobile phone of a teenage girl abducted and murdered in 2002.

The private detectives had deleted voicemail messages at the time to make space for more messages, leading police and the murdered girl's family to think that she might still be alive. The revelation shocked and disgusted the public, and a wave of protests quickly grew on social networks.

The News of the World allegedly has a track record of illegal news-gathering. In 2006, the paper admitted to hacking into the private voicemail of Prince William, third in line to the British royal throne, leading to jail sentences for its royal reporter and a private detective. The paper's then-editor Andy Coulson resigned.

This time around, the paper was unable to stem the tide of revelations and growing public anger. Within the space of a few days, the 168-year-old profitable newspaper was shut down by its parent company News International last week. NI is under the control of international media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

However, the unprecedented move has failed to diffuse the situation.

Cameron was embroiled in the scandal early on as he employed former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his press secretary. He was forced to accept Coulson's resignation early this year when questions about Coulson's role in the scandal when he was editor of News of the World would not go away.

The prime minister was also forced to give a special news conference to defend his behavior late last week. The public is now asking questions about the relationship between newspapers, the police and major political leaders.

The relationship with NI owner Rupert Murdoch also came under fire, including his links with former prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Murdoch's papers had faithfully supported the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher when she won three general elections in a row in the 1970s and 1980s. He then switched allegiance to the Labors in the 1990s. The Labor Party, under Blair, subsequently won three general elections on the trot.

The police are being criticized because they failed to discover the full extent of phone hacking scandal which had gone on over several years, involving at least 3,800 people. Senior police confirmed on Wednesday that the number including film stars, pop singers and top politicians.

There have also been allegations that police officers took substantial bribes to reveal details of stories to the News of the World, and that the private phone numbers of other members of the Royal family besides Prince William had also been hacked.

On Wednesday, former British prime minister Gordon Brown launched a public attack on the professional conduct of two other NI newspapers -- the daily tabloid The Sun and the weekly newspaper The Sunday Times, both leaders in their market segment.

Brown slammed the "disgusting methods" used to get his bank and legal files as well as details of his son's medical files. His son being born with cystic fibrosis was a major exclusive story published by The Sun.

"The fact of the matter is that my tax returns went missing at one point, medical records were broken into. In two of these instances, NI was involved in hiring people -- the people that they worked with are criminals, known criminals."

On Thursday, Cameron confirmed that there would be an inquiry into the broader issue of journalistic standards in Britain leading to new media regulations.

The issue has also succeeded in uniting all three main political parties in putting pressure on News Corporation's bid to buy a controlling share in British Sky Broadcasting, the highly profitable major satellite broadcaster in Britain.

It swiftly announced withdrawal in the purchasing plan on Wednesday. "It has become clear that it is too difficult to progress in this climate," said News Corp Deputy Chairman Chase Carey in a statement.

The scandal has also had a global impact. Murdoch's News Corporation has a significant presence in the United States media sector and its shares have fallen 15 percent since the scandal broke.

The saga is far from over, and looks likely to claim new victims. Cameron likened it in the House of Commons on Thursday to "a firestorm."

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