LONDON – Rupert Murdoch’s media empire was besieged Monday by accusations that two more of his British newspapers engaged in hacking, deception and 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.
His reporters were also accused of paying Queen Elizabeth II’s bodyguards for secret information about the monarch, potentially jeopardizing her safety.
If proved, the charges by rival newspapers would dramatically increase the pressure on top Murdoch executives so far largely insulated from the scandal.
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 newspapers 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 alleged payoffs to police when he was editor of News of the World.
With political pressure rising, a final decision on the $12 billion BSKyB takeover was delayed after Murdoch withdrew a promise to spin off news channel Sky News. It was seen as a tactical move that forced the British government to refer the bid to authorities charged with enforcing anti-monopoly laws, delaying any decision 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.
The takeover will be spared scrutiny during a period of once-unimaginable public criticism of Murdoch’s British operation, News International, fueled by a relentless stream of new allegations of wrongdoing at its properties.
London’s Evening Standard newspaper reported that corrupt royal protection officers sold personal details about Queen Elizabeth II – including phone numbers and tips about her movements and staff – to journalists working for the Murdoch tabloid News of the World, raising questions over a breach in national security.
The scandal spread beyond the now-defunct tabloid, with British media reporting Monday 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 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 missing 13-year-old girl who was later found murdered, said on its website that the Sun had illegally obtained details from the medical records of Brown’s 4-year-old son Fraser, who has cystic fibrosis.
The Sun broke the story of Fraser’s illness soon after he was born in 2006.