LONDON — Britain's voracious tabloids may have hit a new low: The News of the World was facing claims Tuesday that it hacked into a missing 13-year-old's cell phone messages, possibly hampering a police inquiry into her disappearance.
Milly Dowler was found murdered months later and the report that her messages were tampered with has horrified Britons. Major advertisers — including Ford UK — pulled advertisements from the paper. Grocery chain Tesco and Virgin Media both said they were considering similar action.
Britons are used to seeing their tabloid press harass royals, sports stars and celebrities, constantly eavesdropping and paying even the most tangential sources for information about stars' sex lives and drug problems.
But the latest hacking case was met with revulsion from everyone from British Prime Minister David Cameron to movie stars to people who commented on Twitter. British lawmakers called an emergency debate today on the phone hacking.
The case has refocused the spotlight on the already tainted News of The World, which is owned by News International, the British subsidiary of News Corp. and is part of Rupert Murdoch's global media empire at News Corp. It also comes as Murdoch is trying to engineer the politically sensitive, multibillion-pound takeover of broadcaster BSkyB in Britain.
Besides the News of the World, Murdoch's properties include the Times of London and the Sun, Britain's bestselling tabloid, a conservative daily whose political backing can spell success or failure for a candidate or party. News Corp. also operates Fox News in the United States
Milly's disappearance in 2002 while walking home from school in Surrey, south of London, transfixed Britain until her body was found six months later in some woods.
While police were pursuing all leads and Milly's parents were making dramatic appeals for information, a private investigator working for the News of the World allegedly hacked into her cell phone, listened to her messages and even deleted some to make room for possible new ones.
Mark Lewis, a lawyer representing Milly's parents, said Tuesday the suspected hacking may have hampered the police investigation and he plans to sue the tabloid for its interference.
It was never determined how long the teen was alive after being abducted but the tabloid's actions reportedly came soon after her disappearance. Police realized some messages had been deleted, giving them and Milly's parents false hope that she was still alive.
"It is distress heaped upon tragedy to learn that the News of the World had no humanity at such a terrible time," Lewis said. He said executives at the newspaper should take responsibility and step down.
Serial killer Levi Bellfield was convicted of Milly's slaying two weeks ago. He was already serving a life sentence for two other murders.
Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator who earlier served prison time for helping the tabloid hack into cell phones, apologized Tuesday for any interference with police inquiries.
In a statement in the Guardian newspaper, he said he knew he "pushed the limits ethically" and said he was sorry to all who had been "hurt or upset" by his activity.
Mulcaire and reporter Clive Goodman were jailed in 2007 for hacking into the phone messages of palace officials.
Meanwhile, pressure mounted Tuesday for the resignation of Rebekah Brooks, editor of the tabloid at the time of the alleged hacking and now a top Murdoch executive — and confidante — in Britain.
Brooks refused to step down, telling her staff in an e-mail Tuesday that she had no knowledge of the alleged hacking.
"I am sickened that these events are alleged to have happened. Not just because I was editor of the News of the World at the time, but if the accusations are true, the devastating effect on Milly Dowler's family is unforgivable," Brooks wrote.
News International spokesman Simon Greenberg said Brooks still has Murdoch's full confidence, and that News of the World executives met Tuesday with Scotland Yard investigators to discuss the new allegations.
Information from the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.