Murdoch tabloid spied on hacking victims' lawyers

November 7, 2011 - 3:40 PM

LONDON (AP) — Rupert Murdoch's British newspaper company spied on two lawyers who represent alleged victims of phone hacking by its tabloid News of the World, the firm acknowledged Monday.

News International said lawyers Mark Lewis and Charlotte Harris "were subject to surveillance," a practice it called "inappropriate."

The BBC and The Guardian newspaper reported Monday that Lewis and Harris were followed and filmed last year by private investigator Derek Webb, who was hired by the now-defunct tabloid to gather evidence in a bid to discredit them.

Webb — who ran a company called Silent Shadow — told the BBC that the surveillance began in early 2010 and included following and filming Lewis' ex-wife and daughter while they went shopping.

Lewis told the BBC that spying on his teenage daughter was "nothing short of sick" and accused the newspaper of "Mafia-like" behavior.

News International said surveillance was not illegal, but "was clearly deeply inappropriate in these circumstances."

It said the action "was not condoned by any current executive at the company."

Lewis represents the family of 13-year-old Milly Dowler, whose phone was hacked after she disappeared in 2002. She was later found murdered.

Harris's clients have included actress Leslie Ash, politician Lembit Opik and soccer agent Sky Andrew, all of whom claim their cell phone voice mail messages were intercepted by the newspaper.

Murdoch shut down the News of the World in July after evidence emerged that the tabloid's reporters had eavesdropped on Dowler's phone messages while police were hunting for her, and that such illegal activity was widespread at the newspaper.

That touched off a storm of public outrage that shook Murdoch's media empire and sent tremors through Britain's political, police and media establishments.

Several senior executives of Murdoch's News Corp. have resigned over the scandal, including former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks and ex-Wall Street Journal publisher Les Hinton.

More than a dozen journalists, most of them former News of the World employees, have been arrested and questioned about phone hacking, though none has yet been charged. Dozens of people — from celebrities and politicians to the families of crime victims — are suing Murdoch's News Corp.

Murdoch and his son and heir apparent James both denied knowing hacking was endemic at the newspaper when they appeared before a panel of British lawmakers in July.

Former News Corp. employees have cast doubt on their testimony, and James Murdoch has been recalled to give evidence to the committee again on Thursday.

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Jill Lawless can be reached at: http://twitter.com/JillLawless