Tabloids drawn into hacking crisis

Britain's tabloid newspapers are facing a major crisis after being drawn into the News of the World hacking scandal.

Twenty-four hours after Andy Coulson, the British Prime Minister David Cameron's communications chief and former News of the World editor, was forced to resign, a lawyer confirmed other newspapers were facing legal claims.

Mark Lewis, who acted for Gordon Taylor of the Professional Footballers' Association in a damages claim against the NoW, confirmed that he was now representing four people who believe they were targeted by other newspapers.

Lewis said none of the four had been hacked by News Group Newspapers, owner of the News of the World and the Sun.

"Lots of people were doing it," Lewis said. "It was such a widespread practice."

Lewis said he had been preparing the cases since Christmas. "We are at an initial stage in our investigations made with police forces and phone companies. But we believe there is a prima facie case that information has been obtained unlawfully. Although it is a crime, people were regarding it as though it was driving at 35mph in a 30 zone - that you just sort of do it and hope you don't get caught."

There are at least five other lawyers bringing similar cases.

The Independent reported that former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has asked the police to investigate whether he was the victim of phone hacking.

Brown has written at least one letter to the Metropolitan Police over concerns that his phone was targeted when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, during the latter stages of Coulson's reign as editor.

Brown's aides declined to comment. It is understood that Scotland Yard sought clarification from the former Prime Minister after his request.

The news comes as growing criticism of the Met's investigation into widespread mobile phone message interception by the NoW is mounting.

This week, senior Scotland Yard officers are expected to come under fire when they are questioned about the hacking row by London's police authority.

MPs will separately take evidence for a parliamentary inquiry into the scandal and the Department of Public Prosecutions is to meet top Met officers to discuss existing and new evidence.

Coulson said he was quitting as David Cameron's director of communications after allegations about his time as NoW editor threatened to overshadow the Government's work. He denies having any knowledge of illegal practices during his time in charge.

Downing Street strenuously denies claims that his resignation was demanded by Rupert Murdoch, who owns the NoW.

In September, it was revealed that Lord Peter Mandelson's mobile phone details and an invoice for research on him were among files seized by police investigating illegal activity by NoW reporters when Coulson was editor. Alastair Campbell, the former Labour spin-doctor, told the BBC the controversy had now gone beyond the issue of Coulson's future and "the role of the police in this is now going to become centre stage".

The NoW has been under intense scrutiny since its royal editor, Clive Goodman, was jailed in 2007 for plotting to intercept messages left for aides to Prince William.

Scotland Yard today faces serious criticism from Chris Huhne for its handling of the case. Huhne, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, said that the recent suspension of the NoW executive Ian Edmondson had "dramatically changed the situation, and clearly the police and the Met in particular need to get to the bottom of this".

The allegations have come at a critical time for News Group's parent company, News Corp, which is trying to win regulatory approval for its bid to take full control of BSkyB, the pay TV company.

There is speculation that News Corp executives were keen to see Coulson quit before his resignation as Cameron's press chief, amid fears that his presence inside Number 10 Downing Street was damaging the company's commercial interests.

CENTRE OF STORM

Andy Coulson was editor of the News of the World from 2003 to 2006, during which time a lot of people had their voicemail messages listened to unlawfully. Two people in the pay of the paper were sent to prison for hacking into the phones of the royal family's staff, and many people are bringing legal cases to find out if their phones were also hacked during Coulson's time in charge. Coulson has resigned as communications chief to David Cameron, British Prime Minister. He says it was because the media storm about phone hacking was distracting him from doing his job properly.

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