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The year’s most disturbing media story: British tabloid hacked dead girl’s phone messages

The British tabloid media is known for its hold-your-nose-and-admit-you-like-it tastelessness. But even by its own standards, the bombshell revelations that Rubert Murdoch's News of the World allegedly hacked into the phone of a murdered 13-year-old girl in 2002 -- as well as the families of victims from the July 7, 2005 terrorist bombings in London -- are new lows. The British phone-hacking scandal up to now has involved the personal lives and embarrassing peccadilloes of princes, politicians, actors and other notable personalities. But the notion that a paper would stoop to targeting a murder victim stunned the usually unflappable British public.

Late today, the DailyTelegraph reported Scotland Yard detectives were contacting the families of victims of the July 7 bombings in London back in 2005, who might also have been victims of journalists' phone hacking attempts. "It is thought that journalists were seeking to access voice messages left on family members' phones as they desperately waited for information about their loved ones in the aftermath of the bombings," The Telegraph reported.

Labor party leader Ed Miliband summed it up, calling the episode a "stain on the character of British journalism" and parliament will hold public hearings tomorrow on the matter.

What happened? After 13-year-old Milly Dowler went missing, a private investigator hired by the News of the World allegedly hacked into her phone in an effort to get some scoops on the case. He listened to her messages, but then -- in order hear more incoming calls without the voicemail filling up -- he deleted some of the messages. Dowler's family concluded it was Milly who deleted the messages and so she must be alive. The police investigation was stymied by the confusion, and it's still not known if any vital evidence was lost.

For background into the case against the paper and its hacking attempts against Princes William and Harry -- as well as other celebrities -- check out this riveting account in the New York Times Magazine from 2010.

It described the News of the World as "a frantic, sometimes degrading atmosphere in which some reporters openly pursued hacking or other improper tactics to satisfy demanding editors...one former reporter called it a ‘do whatever it takes' mentality."

[The] News of the World was hardly alone in accessing messages to obtain salacious gossip. ‘It was an industrywide thing,' said Sharon Marshall, who witnessed hacking while working at News of the World and other tabloids. ‘Talk to any tabloid journalist in the United Kingdom, and they can tell you each phone company's four-digit codes. Every hack on every newspaper knew this was done.'

BBC political editor Nick Robinson points out that in some ways the story is a political and media tsunami, touching on multiple fronts:

For a long time the hacking story united those who'd always been hostile to the Murdoch empire with those angered by its switch from backing New Labour to supporting the Tories, and those who saw it as a way to damage David Cameron (who hired the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his spin doctor).

Now Murdoch ... and Cameron will be aware that for the first time the hacking story may be engaging and horrifying readers, viewers and voters.

In Afghanistan today, David Cameron called the charges "really appalling" if true. But he might be in an awkward position, according to the Daily Telegraph. He is a friend of Rebekah Brooks, the News Corp executive who was editor at the time the hacking occurred (she's denied knowing about it).

For David Cameron, the News of the World scandal is tremendously difficult. His close friendship with Rebekah Brooks...[is] bound to be mentioned in tomorrow's emergency debate in the Commons on the subject. For Ed Miliband, it has provided a rare triumph -- even the most spectical have praised his well-balanced attack on News International. For once, Miliband was not just delivering a line -- he was expressing a deeply held Left-wing skepticism of the tabloid press, and this resonated with the public.

The Telegraph said that one consequence of the case could be increased attempts at regulating the press in the country.

AFP/Getty Images

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