Is Scotland Yard Going Too Far in Phone Hacking Investigation?

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UK investigators are using tough anti-spying laws to try and pressure The Guardian newspaper to reveal its sources

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Rupert Murdoch holds a copy of The Times newspaper as he leaves his home in London / Reuters

LONDON, UK -- The phone hacking scandal involving the Murdoch media empire is escalating -- though careening or cascading might be better verbs.

In one of the latest mindboggling developments, London's Metropolitan Police Department, better known as Scotland Yard, which has been under serious criticism for having failed to investigate the phone hacking allegations when they first surfaced, has now filed a lawsuit to force The Guardian newspaper to reveal its confidential sources for stories about phone hacking at Murdoch's News of the World.

It might be seen as an act of revenge as the Guardian stories forced the police to resuscitate an investigation they had effectively closed. Scotland Yard believes that some of police officials may have been the Guardian's sources.

More startling, Scotland Yard is pursuing the newspaper under the country's Official Secrets Act. The law, which is considerably more sweeping -- some would say more draconian -- than anything the United States has, has generally been used to prosecute government officials, often spies, who leak information considered damaging to national security.

Scotland Yard's action has generated a chorus of outrage. The Telegraph, a conservative paper, described it as an "intolerable abuse of power," and one that the new police commissioner, who took over when the former commissioner resigned in the wake of the scandal, "must put a stop to today."

The specific Guardian story for which the police want to know the newspaper's sources was about the hacking of the mobile phone of Milly Dowler, the teen-ager who was kidnapped in 2002. Her voice mail was hacked into by someone from the News of World, and messages erased, which allowed her parents to leave more messages, leaving them with the hope that she was still alive. Her body was found six months after she disappeared.

The Guardian reported the hacking earlier this year. Until then, it was thought that the News of World had only been hacking into voice mails of celebrities, sports figures, and politicians. The Guardian story changed the phone hacking story dramatically. Public revulsion led Scotland Yard to revive the investigation and Rupert Murdoch to close the News of the World. He also personally visited the Dowler family to apologize.

That apology came with a price tag for Murdoch, who is offering £3 million to the family to settle any claims, it was reported today.

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Raymond Bonner is an investigative reporter living in London. He was previously a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and a staff writer at The New Yorker, and is the author of Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong.

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