Rupert Murdoch's media empire was besieged Monday by accusations that two more of his British newspapers engaged in privacy violations that included accessing former prime minister Gordon Brown's bank account information and stealing the medical records of his seriously ill baby son.
If proven true, the charges by rival newspapers seem certain to dramatically increase the pressure on Murdoch's News Corp. from a scandal that seems to grow wider and deeper by the hour.
The public outrage began a week ago over wrongdoing at the Murdoch-owned best-selling tabloid News of the World. It has since disrupted the media titan's plans to take over highly profitable satellite broadcaster British Sky Broadcasting and slashed billions off the value of his global conglomerate, News Corp.
In Britain, the scandal has cast a harsh light on the unparalleled political influence of Murdoch's collection of newspaper titles, and is taking an increasing toll on Prime Minister David Cameron. The conservative leader's former communications chief, Andy Coulson, was arrested last week in connection with allegations of payments to police when he was editor of News of the World.
Political pressure rises
With political pressure rising, a final decision on the multi-billion pound BSkyB takeover was delayed after Murdoch withdrew a promise to spin off news channel Sky News, inviting the British government to refer the bid to authorities charged with enforcing anti-monopoly laws. That is expected to delay any approval for months.
Analysts said Murdoch's move amounts to a favor for Cameron, sparing the prime minister the possibility of an embarrassing defeat in the House of Commons on Wednesday on a motion from the opposition Labour Party opposing the takeover bid's approval.
The takeover will also be spared scrutiny during a period of once-unimaginable public criticism of the Australian's British operation, News International, fuelled by a relentless stream of new allegations of wrongdoing at its properties.
Former PM a target
British media began reporting Monday afternoon that Brown was one of thousands whose privacy was breached by News International papers, saying that his personal details — including his bank account and his son's medical records — had been stolen by people working for titles including the Sun and the Sunday Times. None of the media cited sources.
The Guardian, which set off the scandal last week with a report that the News of the World had hacked the phone of a kidnapped teenager, said on its website that the Sun had illegally obtained details from the medical records of Brown's four-year-old son Fraser, who has cystic fibrosis.
The Sun broke the story of Fraser's illness soon after he was born in 2006.
The Guardian reported that News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks, then editor of the Sun, had contacted the Browns before publication to say that the paper had details from Fraser's medical file. The Browns were extremely distressed by the story, friends told the Guardian.
Brooks, who also edited the News of the World when journalists there allegedly hacked murder victim Milly Dowler's cellphone, has since been promoted to head of News International, News Corp.'s U.K. newspaper division. Murdoch has publicly stood by her even while closing down News of the World on Sunday in response to the allegations.
Brooks has denied knowledge of any wrongdoing.
Media watchers accuse Murdoch of offering up the more than 200 News of the World journalists — many of whom say they were not at the title when phone hacking and bribes allegedly took place — as a sacrifice to save Brooks.
On Sunday, the 168-year-old News of the World published its final edition, brought down by the scandal. The last edition of the weekly paper included an apology to readers for the newspaper losing its way.
News International spokeswoman Daisy Dunlop said the company had taken note of the allegations and that in order to investigate further the company asks "that all information concerning these allegations is provided to us."
Shock over allegations
A spokeswoman for Brown said Monday that the former prime minister 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."
Other papers said that Brown had his bank account broken into by a con man acting for Murdoch's Sunday Times.
London's Evening Standard newspaper and others claimed that bosses at News Corp.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.
Published reports Monday also claim a former New York police officer was contacted to provide private phone data of 9/11 victims.
Britain's Daily Mirror newspaper reported that the former officer said reporters wanted the victims' phone numbers and details of the calls they had made and received in the days leading up to the attack in order to hack into voicemails.
The officer reportedly said he turned down the offer.
"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."
Embarrassing for government
The hacking scandal has proved to be an embarrassment to the government because one of the senior editors of the paper later worked for Cameron.
The 80-year-old Murdoch arrived in the U.K. on Sunday to take charge of the widening crisis.
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,.
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.
A group of News Corp. shareholders already have sued the company over the phone-hacking scandal, accusing News Corp. of large-scale governance failures. The lawsuit was filed late Friday in Delaware Chancery Court by shareholders led by Amalgamated Bank, and several municipal and union pension funds joined in.
The shareholders own less than one percent of News Corp.'s stock combined. The lawsuit is part of an amended complaint. The shareholders are also challenging News Corp.'s acquisition of Shine Group Ltd., founded by Murdoch's daughter. News Corp. didn't immediately return messages for comment on the lawsuit.
Police say probe details being leaked
British police said Monday they believe someone is trying to sabotage its investigation into the scandal by leaking details of the inquiry to the media.
Scotland Yard said a story that appeared on the front page of London's Evening Standard — which claimed that police had sold personal details about the Queen and her closest aides — was "part of a deliberate campaign to undermine the investigation into the alleged payments by corrupt journalists to corrupt police officers and divert attention from elsewhere."
Meanwhile, the family of British murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler met with Britain's deputy prime minister Monday to discuss their concerns about the hacking of her phone by the News of the World. The tabloid's operatives reportedly deleted some messages from the phone's voicemail, giving the girl's parents false hope that she was still alive.