The scandal engulfing Rupert Murdoch’s media empire exploded in several directions Monday, with fresh reports of phone hacking attacks against some of the nation’s most powerful figures, including royals and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Adding to the intrigue, Scotland Yard released an unusual statement accusing unidentified individuals of trying to sabotage its sprawling investigation. The police — themselves accused of accepting bribes from Murdoch’s journalists — said somebody was deliberately planting distracting information in the press.
No one, it seems, had been safe from the prying eyes of corrupt journalists.
Police officers betrayed members of the royal family to the News of The World, according to several reports. British media were reporting that Brown was one of thousands whose personal details — including his bank account and his son’s medical records — were targeted by people working for News International titles including The Sun and the Sunday Times. None of the media cited sources.
A spokeswoman for Brown said he was shocked by the alleged “criminality and the unethical means by which personal details have been obtained” about his family.
His wife, Sarah, tweeted that the information was very personal and it was “really hurtful if all true.”
News International spokeswoman Daisy Dunlop said the company acknowledged the allegations and that in order to investigate further the company asks “that all information concerning these allegations is provided to us.”
The charges added to a sense of disbelief that has spread across Britain.
“The events of last week shocked the nation,” Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt told lawmakers Monday. He said Britain’s proud press tradition had been “shaken by the revelation of what we now know to have happened at the News of The World.”
The British press has been furiously reporting allegations that journalists at the News of the World tabloid may have hacked into phones of young murder victims, families of dead servicemen and terrorism victims. The widening scandal has prompted Murdoch’s News Corp. to close the tabloid and withdraw its promise to spin off Sky News — a move that forced Hunt to refer its bid for British Sky Broadcasting to competition authorities.
The decision will delay the bid, although it was not immediately clear whether Murdoch hoped to buy time with the ploy in the hope the scandal would die down, or whether it was an implicit acknowledgement that the bid was dead.
A failure to clinch the $19 billion takeover would represent a huge setback for Murdoch, but even as the mogul was in London to try to contain the damage, as allegations against his empire rushed in.
British media said that Brown was one of thousands targeted by News International, saying that his personal details — including his bank account and his son’s medical records — had been targeted by people working for titles including the Sun and the Sunday Times. None of the media cited sources.
On Monday afternoon, London’s Evening Standard newspaper and others claimed that bosses at News Corp., News International’s parent company, had discovered a series of e-mails indicating that employees had been making payments to members of Scotland Yard’s royal and diplomatic protection squad in return for personal details about the monarch and her entourage.
The Evening Standard cited “sources” without saying who the sources were or how they would be in a position to know.
Buckingham Palace has also declined to be drawn on any of the reports.
Scotland Yard has declined to specifically address the claims, but in a statement directly referencing the Standard’s story they said that they were “extremely concerned and disappointed that the continuous release of selected information — that is only known by a small number of people — could have a significant impact on the corruption investigation.”
So who does Scotland Yard accuse of trying to derail its inquiry? Police have refused to say — although they named News International and its legal representatives as other parties to its information.
What is clear is that fallout in the scandal may just be beginning.
Legal experts said Monday it is possible Murdoch’s U.S. companies even may face legal actions because of the shady practices at the News of the World, his now defunct British tabloid.
They said Murdoch’s News Corp. might be liable to criminal prosecution under the 1977 Corrupt Foreign Practices Act, a broad act designed to prosecute executives who bribe foreign officials in exchange for large contracts.
Prime Minister David Cameron also appears under pressure because of his close ties to key figures in the scandal.
The former editor of the paper, Andy Coulson, later worked for the Conservative leader as his communications director. Cameron is also reportedly close to Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of the tabloid’s publisher, News International.