LONDON – The late journalist Nicholas Tomalin once summed up the skills needed for his job — a "rat-like cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability." Many British reporters regard that description with a touch of pride.
Wiliness and subterfuge are important tricks of the trade in the Wild West world of Britain's raucous tabloid newspapers, which attract millions of readers with scoops — true or not — about the private lives of the rich, famous and powerful. Libel suits and settlement payouts are common, papers regularly pay for interviews with people in the spotlight and police have been known to get cash for tabloid tipoffs.
But recent revelations about a tabloid's illegal phone hacking of celebrities are rattling Rupert Murdoch's powerful media empire as well as Prime Minister David Cameron's inner circle. Britain's biggest police force, which stands accused of botching the phone-hacking investigation, is also being dragged in.
Police this week reopened an inquiry into whether British tabloids spied on royalty, politicians and celebrities, promising a thorough new investigation into claims that reporters from the News of the World hacked into cell phone voicemail messages of dozens of prominent people, including model Elle MacPherson, actress Sienna Miller and former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.
Metropolitan Police Acting Commissioner Tim Godwin on Thursday promised the force's pursuit of criminals would be "very robust."
"It will restore confidence in victims who feel they have not been given a service," Godwin told London's police scrutiny panel. "It will be with no stone unturned."
A reporter and a private investigator working for the News of the World — Britain's biggest Sunday paper, with a circulation of more than 3 million — were jailed in early 2007 for eavesdropping on voicemail messages left for royal staff, including some by Princes William and Harry.
For four years, the newspaper claimed the phone hacking was limited to royal editor Clive Goodwin and gumshoe Glenn Mulcaire, who used industry access codes to hack into voicemails.
But on Wednesday, the paper said it had discovered new evidence and fired a senior editor, Ian Edmonson. The newspaper said it would cooperate with police and vowed to "take swift and decisive action" against wrongdoing.
Yet many are skeptical of the paper's newfound zeal.
The original police investigation found the names of hundreds of celebrities, sports figures and politicians, many of whom suspect their phones also were hacked. The Guardian newspaper, which has led coverage of the story in Britain, said there may be thousands of targets, most of whom have not been publicly identified.
Several, including Miller, are taking legal action against the News of the World or have accepted out-of-court settlements.
Lawyers for Kelly Hoppen — an interior designer who is also Miller's stepmother — said Thursday that she had begun legal action against the paper over an allegation her cell phone was hacked as recently as last year.
Media insiders also are skeptical the practice was confined to a single newspaper.
"It's a circulation war," said celebrity publicist Max Clifford, who accepted a payout over the hacking of his phone by the News of the World. "If someone's getting results this way, it soon gets around."
Some accuse police of failing to investigate properly for fear of upsetting their close relationship with newspapers. Official policy forbids officers from taking cash for tips, but The Sun's former editor admitted in 2003 that the paper had paid police for information.
Prescott, the former deputy prime minister, believes the newspaper used phone hacking to get a story about his extramarital affair and has called for a judge-led review into the force's handling of the case.
"I just don't trust the Metropolitan Police to conduct a proper inquiry," he said.
The widening scandal is a headache for media mogul Murdoch, whose News International Ltd. owns four British national newspapers — the tabloids The Sun and News of the World as well as The Times and The Sunday Times. News International is a subsidiary of Murdoch's News Corp., whose U.S. media outlets include Fox Television, the New York Post and The Wall Street Journal.
Already a powerful political player in Britain, Murdoch is hoping to expand his reach with a takeover of satellite broadcaster British Sky Broadcasting Group PLC, in which he already owns a 40 percent stake.
The British government is considering whether to order a full-scale inquiry by Britain's Competition Commission to examine whether it would give News Corp. too big a share of the media market.
The widening phone-hacking scandal won't make Murdoch's case any stronger. It has already claimed the prime minister's spin doctor, Andy Coulson, the former top editor at News of the World, who resigned from the paper when Goodwin and Mulcaire were convicted in 2007.
Coulson has always claimed he knew nothing about the hacking but last week he quit as Cameron's communications chief, saying "when the spokesman needs a spokesman, it's time to move on."
Even with the number of suspects and alleged victims growing, many doubt the scandal will change Britain's keenly competitive tabloid culture. Newspapers believe readers are hungry for scoops — and will forgive tabloids their transgressions if they get juicy ones.
"I mean, secretly, doesn't everyone read this gossip?" said Lesley Miller, a 59-year-old retiree and News of the World reader. "With all these celebrities, I think when you become one, your privacy goes down the toilet. It's a fact of life you have to accept."
Tamara Baluja and Aaron Edwards in London contributed to this report.