LONDON – The British government on Tuesday joined in calls for Rupert Murdoch to shelve his ambition of taking full control of British Sky Broadcasting as his newspapers are embroiled in a spreading investigation of alleged phone hacking and bribery.
Prime Minister David Cameron's office said the government will vote with the opposition Labour Party on Wednesday to support a motion calling for Murdoch to abandon the bid.
Labour leader Ed Miliband said this would be the simplest way to insure that the bid isn't considered until criminal investigations are complete. A News Corp. spokeswoman declined to comment on the government's announcement.
The decision capped a day in which former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown accused Murdoch's U.K. newspapers of employing criminals to obtain confidential information about his family and ordinary people, and police officers came under sharp criticism for failing to turn up evidence of some of the most serious spying allegations.
Brown's furious denunciation of the politically powerful News International papers came after it was revealed The Sun newspaper obtained confidential information in 2006 that Brown's infant son Fraser had cystic fibrosis -- and that he was among many whose privacy was breached by Murdoch's papers.
They "really exploited people -- I'm not talking so much about me here now, I'm talking about people who were at rock bottom," Brown told the BBC. Brown said he knew of no legitimate way The Sun could have found out about his son's illness, though the newspaper said it used legitimate means.
"They will have to explain themselves," he said.
Besides disrupting the media mogul's plans to take over highly profitable satellite broadcaster British Sky Broadcasting, the widening allegations have slashed billions off the value of Murdoch's global conglomerate, News Corp. It has put his top editors in the U.K. under pressure and renewed anger at London's Metropolitan Police for dropping an earlier investigation into company practices.
At a tense House of Commons parliamentary committee hearing, one current and two former senior officials of London's Metropolitan Police said they regretted that an investigation of the News of the World in 2006 had not uncovered the extent of the alleged phone hacking, which allegedly spread to The Sun tabloid and the upmarket Sunday Times.
They blamed the News of the World and News International for not cooperating and pleaded that the force was preoccupied with terrorism investigations.
Resources were stretched and there had not had enough officers to fully staff 70 terrorist investigations running at the time, said Peter Clarke, former commander of the anti-terrorist branch. The case yielded convictions and prison sentences for a reporter and a private detective working for News of the World.
Documents gathered in the first investigation yielded 3,870 names, 5,000 landline numbers and 4,000 mobile numbers that may potentially have been hacked, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers told the committee. So far, she said, police had contacted 170 potential targets of hacking.
Outrage exploded last week when it was claimed that News of the World employees hacked the phone of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old murder victim, as police searched for her in 2002. The hacker allegedly deleted some voicemail messages, giving her parents false hope that the girl was still alive and using her phone.
The scandal has broadened, with among others accusations, the allegation that Murdoch reporters paid Queen Elizabeth II's bodyguards for secret information about the monarch, potentially jeopardizing her safety.
Cameron said Brown had highlighted what "looks like yet another example of an appalling invasion of privacy and the hacking of personal data," and said he was determined that current investigations would get to the bottom of it.
In an interview with the BBC, Brown said he and his wife Sarah were in tears after being informed by Rebekah Brooks, then the editor of The Sun and now the chief executive of News International, that the paper knew about his son's illness.
Brown also accused The Sunday Times of employing criminals to hack into his bank and tax records.
"Rock bottom was the rock upon which The Sunday Times founded their reputation, and other newspapers in News International founded their reputation, for purely commercial gain and in some cases to abuse political power," Brown said.
"What about the person, like the family of Milly Dowler, who are in the most desperate of circumstances, the most difficult occasions in their lives, in huge grief and then they find that they are totally defenseless in this moment of greatest grief from people who are employing these ruthless tactics with links to known criminals?" Brown added.
Brown did not identify anyone he believed to be a criminal employed by News International.
In a brief statement responding to Brown, News International said: "So that we can investigate these matters further, we ask that all information concerning these allegations is provided to us."
A News International official, speaking on condition of anonymity, asserted that the information was obtained legitimately.
Members of the House of Commons Home Affairs committee repeatedly expressed incredulity that police had not gone further with their original investigation.
But Ian Blair, who led the Metropolitan Police from 2005 to 2008, told legislators that phone hacking by newspapers "was never a major issue in my time."
"It was a tiny fragmentary event in the events that were taking place across London at the time," Blair said.
Assistant commissioner John Yates faced a barrage of questions about his decision, following a one-day review, not to reopen the investigation in 2009 after fresh allegations surfaced.
"In hindsight, had I known what I should have known, it was a poor decision," Yates said.
Meanwhile, opposition Labour Party legislator Tom Watson said Brooks, Murdoch and his son James had been invited to appear next week before the House of Commons committee which deals with media issues. There was no immediate response from News International.