The Cutline

Phone-hack saga spiraling out of control: 9/11 dead (possibly), ex-British prime minister are latest victims revealed

Joe Pompeo
The Cutline

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(Photo of Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks: Ian Nicholson)

The British press Monday dropped two more bombshells in the News of the World phone-hacking saga.

First up: News of the World journalists, who have been accused of horrifically intrusive phone-hacking tactics in the U.K., may also have illegally accessed the cell phones of those who perished in the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks.

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That's what a source tells one of Britain's other notoriously lurid tabloids, the Daily Mirror. The Mirror reports that an unnamed private investigator and former New York City police officer alleges that News of the World journalists offered to pay him for 9/11 victims' phone numbers and call log details.

The 9/11 allegation comes on the heels of last week's revelations that News of the World had tapped into the voicemails of people whose loved ones were killed in the subway bombings that rocked Britain on July 7, 2005. Thanks to that report, along with similarly damaging scoops that the phone-hacking victims included a murdered 13-year-old girl and veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 168-year-old paper shuttered its operations following Sunday's issue.

Today's unconfirmed Mirror report turns up as Rupert Murdoch, chief executive of News Corporation, which owned News of the World, has arrived in the U.K. for crisis control. The scandal now threatens not only News Corp's takeover of British Sky Broadcasting, the U.K.'s largest pay-TV provider, but also is likely to greatly diminish Murdoch's overall influence in British publishing and politics.

One of the mogul's first orders of business upon landing in London was to voice his support for Rebekah Brooks, the besieged former editor of News of the World and current head of News Corp's British subsidiary, News International.

Brooks claims she had no knowledge of the hacking incidents at the time they occurred, even though several of them took place during her tenure. But pressure has nevertheless been mounting for Brooks to bear some of the accountability--especially now that 200 News of the World editorial hands have lost their jobs.

As for the possible 9/11 hacks, the Daily Mirrror's source claims that the former New York cop "was asked to hack into the 9/11 victims' private phone data. He said that the journalists asked him to access records showing the calls that had been made to and from the mobile phones belonging to the victims and their ­relatives."

The report, which appears to have been sourced second-hand, continues: "His presumption was that they wanted the information so they could hack into the ­relevant voicemails, just like it has been shown they have done in the UK. The PI said he had to turn the job down. He knew how insensitive such research would be, and how bad it would look.

"The investigator said the ­journalists seemed particularly interested in getting the phone records belonging to the British victims of the attacks."

A spokeswoman for News International did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Nor did multiple 9/11 families groups.

But the prospect of a 9/11 blowback for Murdoch is just one of the headaches he's facing on his U.K. trip.

The Guardian now reports that former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was a "repeated" target of journalists not only at News of the World, but across News International's stable of four British papers, including the company's venerable broadsheet flagship, the Times of London. Over the course of 10 years, Murdoch employees sought to "access his voicemail and [obtain] information from his bank account, his legal file as well as his family's medical records," according to The Guardian.

Murdoch and News Corp. have in the past proved resilient in the face of controversy and public outrage. But media insiders speculate that his luck may be running out.

"Even for someone who has remained immune to consequence for so long, the hacking scandal has implications that may ripple beyond the shores of England--in part because Mr. Murdoch no longer has custody of the story," writes David Carr.

"It doesn't look good for Murdoch," writes Tina Brown, but "he's not vanquished yet."

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