LONDON — A mounting scandal over phone hacking in Britain threatened to further damage Rupert Murdoch’s media empire Monday, with fresh allegations that News Corp. journalists illegally targeted a former prime minister and may have accessed the messages of Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla.
The scandal escalated sharply with reports that Gordon Brown, who stepped down as prime minister last year, was the focus of phone-hack attempts and other illegal information-gathering from his bank records and his young son’s medical files.
Investigations by the BBC and the Guardian newspaper suggested that illicit practices ranged beyond the feisty world of News Corp. tabloids and included journalists acting on behalf of one of the company’s more prestigious papers, the Sunday Times.
“Gordon Brown has now been informed of the scale of intrusion into his family’s life. The family has been shocked by the level of criminality and the unethical means by which personal details have been obtained. The matter is in police hands,” Brown spokeswoman Nicola Burdett said in a statement Monday.
Other News Corp. journalists, the BBC said, sought to buy the personal phone numbers of the royal family, leading the broadcaster to question whether even Queen Elizabeth’s phone might have been hacked.
Murdoch was in London on Monday, attempting to personally manage what is quickly becoming one of the most serious crises in the history of the world’s second-largest media conglomerate — a global network of newspapers, film studios and television stations, including U.S.-based Fox News.
Murdoch over the weekend shuttered the 168-year-old News of the World tabloid, seeking to quell a growing fervor here. Though years in the making, the scandal — at first thought to be limited to police bribes and the hacking of voice mails of celebrities and sports stars — turned into a full-scale crisis last week amid revelations that News of the World had also targeted average British citizens.
British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg on Monday suggested that shutting down one newspaper would not be enough. After meeting with the parents of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old abducted and killed in 2002 whose case was complicated by News of the World phone hacks, Clegg called on Murdoch to drop his $12 billion bid to expand his holdings here by taking over full ownership of British Sky Broadcasting, the nation’s most lucrative satellite broadcaster. News Corp. owns 39 percent.
Such a move could thwart News Corp.’s plans to consolidate its position as the dominant voice of conservative Britain by adding a highly profitable and politically influential asset to its portfolio. A successful takeover of the company was also viewed as a key steppingstone for Murdoch’s 38-year-old son, James Murdoch, on the road to running his father’s empire one day.
“The Murdochs have ruled the roost here in this country for 30 years,” said Claire Enders, chief executive of London media researchers Enders Analysis. “This is absolutely seismic for their empire.”
Indeed, the BSkyB deal, which has been in the works for months, is suddenly in doubt, analysts say. In an apparent attempt to buy time, News Corp. on Monday withdrew a pledge to spin off the Sky News channel as part of the deal, effectively forcing the government to refer the takeover to competition authorities for a potentially lengthy review.
The move came after the opposition Labor Party said it would present a motion against the BSkyB takeover in Parliament on Wednesday. Such an action could divide Britain’s coalition government of Conservatives, known for their close ties to News Corp. journalists, and Liberal Democrats, who have often been their targets. Some Liberal Democrats have indicated they may break government ranks to vote with Labor to block the takeover.
After initially plummeting more than 7 percent in heavy London trading, shares of BSkyB closed the day down more than 5 percent.
“Look how people feel about this. Look how the country has reacted with revulsion to the revelations,” Clegg said to reporters on Monday. He called on Murdoch to “do the decent and sensible thing and reconsider — think again — about your bid for BSkyB.”
The Guardian also reported that police have warned Buckingham Palace that Charles and Camilla were among several members of the royal family who might have had their voice mails hacked. The Guardian said that Brown was targeted during his years as chancellor of the exchequer — Britain’s equivalent of treasury secretary — as well as while he was prime minister.
In one of many incidents reported by the newspaper, Brown’s tax filings were apparently hacked from his accountant’s office. In another, someone reportedly working for the Sunday Times posed as Brown to obtain his private bank information, the paper said.
Officials from News International — News Corp.’s British subsidiary — did not return phone calls on Monday. In a statement, the company said: “We note the allegations made today concerning the reporting of matters relating to Gordon Brown. So that we can investigate these matters further, we ask that all information concerning these allegations is provided to us."
Scotland Yard said in a statement: “It is our belief that information that has appeared in the media today is 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 scandal continued to put pressure on Murdoch’s inner circle and on Prime Minister David Cameron.
Cameron, a Conservative, is facing questions over his party’s political ties and his personal connections to News Corp. officials.
Andy Coulson, a former News of the World top editor who was arrested Friday in connection with the hacking scandal, was Cameron’s communications officer until he resigned under pressure in January. Cameron is also a personal friend of Rebekah Brooks, a former top editor of News of the World and the current chief executive of News Corp.’s British operations who is now facing calls to step down. Brooks and Coulson have maintained that they had no knowledge of illicit news-gathering.
Yet the reports that Brown — Cameron’s opponent in last April’s elections — had also been a target of News of the World only escalated calls for Cameron to provide more details of his relationship with News Corp. officials. Cameron has already called for two independent investigations into the scandals, and has also denied receiving specific information indicating that Coulson had been involved in any wrongdoing before hiring him as a communications director.
Nevertheless, Labour leader Ed Miliband said Monday that the government must move up the timetable for announced independent inquires into the scandal. Cameron’s account of what he knew “does not add up,” he said.
“What I'm saying is the prime minister has a whole series of unanswered questions on this issue,” Miliband said.
Special correspondents Karla Adam and Eliza Mackintosh contributed to this report.