British lawmaker calls for Murdoch to explain tabloid phone hacking to parliamentary inquiry

LONDON (AP) — British legislators authorized a sweeping inquiry Thursday into illicit snooping on politicians and celebrities by tabloids, as one lawmaker called for media tycoon Rupert Murdoch to testify over allegations one of his newspapers illegally hacked into cell phones.

Tom Watson, a former Cabinet Office minister and opposition Labour party lawmaker, said Murdoch, the chief executive officer of News Corp., should be asked to explain the actions of reporters and editors at the News of The World, a weekly tabloid owned by his company.

Lawmakers agreed that Parliament's Standards and Privileges committee would hold hearings into claims that illegal methods to gather personal information on high-profile figures have been used throughout the British media.

It follows new allegations aired about tactics used at the News of the World — claims that have brought into question the position of the newspaper's ex-editor Andy Coulson, who is now Prime Minister David Cameron's communications director.

Coulson quit as editor in 2007 after his royal reporter and a private investigator were convicted of hacking phone voicemail messages left for royal officials, including some from Princes William and Harry.

Legislators said Britain's information commissioner had previously raised concerns about the use of illegal methods to obtain personal information. Watson told a House of Commons debate that "the evidence of endemic abuse is growing by the day" and called for senior newspaper executives to testify to Parliament.

"I doubt that Rupert Murdoch knows about these indiscretions, but he is responsible for appointing people to positions of great power who should, and for that reason he too should explain his actions to the committee," Watson said.

Tensions between lawmakers and Britain's media have run high since last summer's expense check scandal, when newspapers disclosed legislators' often outrageous claims for public funds. Several politicians are facing criminal charges as a result.

Watson said police and Parliament had previously been too timid in tackling tabloid excess, or reprimanding executives.

"They, the barons of the media with their red-topped assassins, are the biggest beasts in the modern jungle. They have no predators, they are untouchable, they laugh at the law, they sneer at Parliament, they have the power to hurt us and they do with gusto and precision," he told lawmakers.

In a statement, the News of the World claimed the issue had become "intensely partisan."

"Amidst a swirl of untethered allegations, there should be no doubt that the News of the World will investigate any allegation of wrongdoing when presented with evidence," the newspaper said. "As we have always made clear, we have a zero-tolerance approach to wrongdoing and will take swift and decisive action if we have proof."

Parliament's standards and privileges committee will meet Tuesday to decide on the terms of its inquiry.

London police have confirmed they are considering whether to reopen their investigation into phone hacking after ex-News of The World reporters claimed the use of illegal methods was far more widespread than previously established.

An article published in The New York Times quoted former reporter Sean Hoare as saying that Coulson had been aware of the practice of phone hacking. Coulson denies any wrongdoing.

The Guardian on Thursday quoted another ex-journalist at the tabloid, Paul McMullan, as saying he had commissioned private investigators to commit hundreds of illegal acts on the newspaper's behalf and that Coulson knew.

"How can Coulson possibly say he didn't know what was going on with the private investigators?" the paper quoted McMullan as saying

Assistant police commissioner John Yates said detectives plan to speak with ex-employees including Coulson.

Cameron's Downing Street office says the prime minister supports Coulson, who is continuing his duties as normal. "There is nothing in today's newspapers that changes that position at all," Cameron's spokesman Steve Field told reporters.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg urged police to proceed swiftly with any new inquiry.

"The most important thing of all is that the police now, since new allegations have been made, should look now as quickly and thoroughly as possible at these new allegations," he said.