A News of the World sign hangs at the entrance to a News International building in London.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge
LONDON — Britain's prime minister demanded inquiries into a burgeoning phone hacking scandal as allegations mounted Wednesday that a tabloid eavesdropped on missing schoolgirls and the families of terrorist bombing victims as well as celebrities and royals.
The scandal sparked an emergency debate in Parliament, where lawmakers vented outrage at the alleged phone hacking by the News of the World tabloid. It also posed the greatest threat yet to Rupert Murdoch's global media empire, as a growing number of companies pulled their ads from the tabloid in disgust and calls mounted for Rebekah Brooks, Murdoch's top executive in Britain, to step down.
"We are no longer talking here about politicians and celebrities, we are talking about murder victims, potentially terrorist victims, having their phones hacked into," Cameron said. "It is absolutely disgusting, what has taken place, and I think everyone in this House and indeed this country will be revolted by what they have heard and what they have seen on their television screens."
Cameron called for inquiries into the News of the World's behavior as well as into the failure of the police's original phone hacking inquiry, which did not uncover the allegations now emerging. The tabloid is part of News International, the British arm of Murdoch's News Corp. media empire.
Murdoch supported Brooks as politicians called Wednesday for her to step down because of the tabloid's actions when she was its editor. She now heads News International.
London's Metropolitan Police, meanwhile, confirmed they were investigating evidence from News International that some officers illegally accepted payments from the tabloid in return for information.
Labour legislator Chris Bryant, one of dozens of prominent Britons who believe their phones were hacked, called the paper's actions "the immoral and almost certainly criminal deeds of an organization that was appallingly led and had completely lost sight of any idea of decency or shared humanity."
Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International, which publishes the News of the World tabloid, arrives at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, England, in this Oct. 6, 2009 file photo.
Jon Super / AP Enlarge
Still, Cameron said any inquiry into the News of the World would have to wait until the police investigation was concluded.
U.K. tabloids have a long history of harassing royals, sports stars and celebrities, eavesdropping and paying sources for information about stars' sex lives and drug problems. But News of the World is now accused of possibly interfering with police investigations into missing girls who were eventually found murdered.
A lawyer for the family of murdered teen Milly Dowler has accused the News of the World of hacking into the cell phone of the missing 13-year-old in 2002, deleting messages and giving her parents and police false hope that the girl was still alive.
British media also reported that the parents of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, 10-year-olds murdered by a school caretaker in 2002, had been informed by police that they were investigating whether the News of the World also hacked their telephones.
The hacking case then broadened to terror victims, 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 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 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 got to 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 but added "I doubt he's brave enough to face me."
Simon Greenberg, the News International spokesman, told the BBC that a meeting was "something we would consider."
Several companies hastily pulled ads from the News of the World. 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 had 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.
Glenn Mulcaire, a private detective employed by the News of the World, and former royal 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 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.