(update below)

Rupert Murdoch’s News International, a subsidiary of News Corp, is at the center of political and media scrutiny in the United Kingdom, as details surface on a scandal involving a tabloid newspaper he owns, News of the World. The scandal involves allegations that the newspaper illegally hacked into the voicemail of phones owned by celebrities, politicians, royal aides, sport stars and victims of crimes.  And, to tamp down the growing controversy, today Murdoch announced the News of the World newspaper will be shut down.

Details on the phone hacking scandal have been largely absent from US news. For months, an unfolding story centered on tabloids hacking into phones has been taking shape in the UK. But, just recently, The Guardian reported News of the World targeted “missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler and her family in March 2002, interfering with police inquiries into her disappearance.” This revelation indicates not only were typical targets of any tabloid newspaper hacked but so too were members of the public.

James Murdoch, News International’s company chairman and son of Rupert Murdoch, who has been implicated in the scandal and accused of authorizing his company to pay money to silence individuals who had been hacked to cover up his company’s illegal behavior, stated, “The good things the News of the World does have been sullied by behavior that was wrong.” And, “If recent allegations are true, it was inhuman and has no place in our company.”

Rebekah Brooks, editor of News of the World, is alleged to be at the center of the hacking scandal as well, but she has refused to resign from her job as a chief executive of News International. Rupert Murdoch has come to her defense saying she will not be stepping down.

According to BBC News, News of the World royal editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire have been jailed for hacking. The Guardian’s live blog on the scandal reports Andy Coulson, former News of the World editor, will be arrested tomorrow morning.

“Actor Hugh Grant, publicist Max Clifford, actresses Sienna Miller and Gwyneth Paltrow, former MP George Galloway, Lord Prescott, London Mayor Boris Johnson, football pundit Andy Gray and ex-footballer Paul Gascoigne,” are all believed to have been victims of hacking. And, quite disturbingly, the murdered teenager Dowler and parents of murdered Soham schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman were targeted along with relatives of dead UK soldiers.

The Global Post reports Scotland Yard has been contacting families of the victims of the London Bombings, which happened on July 7 in 2005. The Post notes, “While relatives were waiting for information as to whether their loved ones were still alive, hackers were able to access voicemail information to use in news stories, according to reports.”

How is this possible? As BBC News explains, “Mobile phones used to come with a default four-digit Pin such as 1234, 0000 or 3333. Customers were expected to change their Pin, but very few did.” News of the World dialed the number and, when the caller didn’t answer, tabloid journalists or private investigators would enter the default Pin to get to the person’s voicemails.

Phone hacking is against the law. At issue here is the relationship between government, the police, and media in the UK.

It appears the Metropolitan Police has faced criticism for not steadfastly pursuing an investigation. In 2009, despite a story in The Guardian on thousands of celebrities, sports stars and politicians being hacked, they chose not to relaunch an investigation that had begun with an inquiry into phone hacking in 2006, which resulted in Goodman and Mulcaire being jailed.

Detectives investigating this scandal say thousands of people were likely hacked, all of this done to obtain exclusive stories. This really gets at key questions of press ethics.

How far should journalists be able to go when searching for a story? Does getting a story warrant breaking the law? Is it in the public interest to know the thoughts or phone messages of those who are grieving over lost loved ones or the final thoughts or phone messages of individuals who were victims of murder or soldiers who died while fighting a battle?

David Allen Green of The New Statesman writes, in regards to the case of the schoolgirl, Milly Dowler:

…[News of the World] is alleged to have deleted messages to ensure that the voicemail inbox was not filled up.

This was during an on-going police investigation into a disappearance. The deleted voicemails could have been evidence in respect of the crime, or information that could have assisted the police.

If these allegations are correct, then the current police investigation is now no longer just into breaches of the legislation relating to phone hacking.

Green also writes, “If the tabloids could hack phones in the investigation into the disappearance of Milly Dowler, there is no logical reason why they were not routinely hacking the phones of victims and their friends and families during other high-profile investigations. And, he suggested one check the tabloid’s past coverage of murder investigations for “stories which could only be from phone hacking” and also keep a close watch on tabloid websites in the UK to see if they take down past coverage of murder investigations.

Green, along with Hugh Grant, Lord Fowler, Sir Peter Bottomley MP, Chris Bryant MP, David Banks, Francis Wheen, James Hanning, Dr. Ben Goldacre, Tom Watson MP, Baroness Onora O’Neill, Roy Gleenslade and John Pilger currently back a full judicial inquiry into allegations and evidence of hacking.

Support from MPs for an inquiry is possibly significant because it appears the political culture in the United Kingdom has typically allowed the tabloid newspapers to bully and intimidate politicians.

In recent days, Bryant and Watson, MPs from the Labor Party, have strongly condemned the hacking.

Watson declared in the British Parliament that families’ pain and suffering had been callously exploited. “Anguished families” must now face the fact that in a world where tabloids like News of the World are able to operate as they do “no one can grieve in private, no one can cry their tears without surveillance, no one can talk to their friends without their private feelings becoming public property.”

Watson admonished Brooks and James Murdoch for their “behavior to the most vulnerable, their knowledge of law-breaking and their failure to act, their links with the criminal underworld, their attempt to cover up law-breaking and pay for people’s silence,” and concluded, “They are not fit or proper persons to control any part of the media in this country.”

“We have let one man have far too great a sway over our national life,” stated Bryant. “At least Berlusconi lives in Italy. But, [Rupert] Murdoch is not resident here. He does not pay taxes here and has never gone before a select committee of this House. No other country would allow one man to garner four national newspapers, the second largest national broadcaster, a monopoly on sports rights and first view movies. America, the home of the aggressive entrepreneur, doesn’t allow it. We shouldn’t allow it.”

Now, as an inquiry moves forward in the UK, Americans may want to ask whether this happened here. They may want to contact their congressman to ask for an inquiry into the operations of journalists working under the purview of companies owned by Rupert Murdoch here in the United States.

Last night, Keith Olbermann, host of “Countdown” on Current TV, asked guest Michael Wolff, author of The Man Who Owned the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch andVanity Fair contributing editor, about the possibility of phone hacking in the US.

OLBERMANN: We’re assuming, and I am wondering if there is any real basis for this assumption—It’s the same company. It’s the same standards. It’s the same people running it at the top. Is there any reason to assume, or that we’re correct in assuming, that nobody in the Murdoch companies would have done that here?

WOLFF: I think that’s the next question. And, there’s an interesting thing. This has been a scandal that has remained very contained in the United Kingdom, very little coverage of it here. Even now, just waking up, I’ll note that MSNBC took a look at this. Nobody’s covering this tonight. So, it’s just now, the questions are just now dawning on everyone.

In my newsroom today, I said, hey, what happened? Could they have done it here? Literally, can you do it here? Can you hack someone’s phone here? Is there a difference? And, there is not a difference. So, I think what you have to look at, and many people are now looking at it, is, in terms of the News of the World, what stories were they looking at in the US. They have reporters on the ground everywhere. So, stories here, why wouldn’t they have done this?

As Wolff notes, if it did happen here, the nature of an inquiry changes entirely. The case then becomes something the US has the power to get involved in and investigate. And, it seems those in the US government would have an obligation to pursue an investigation.

Here’s the full video from last night of the “Countdown” segment on Rupert Murdoch and the phone hacking scandal.

Update 1

In the comments, it is being noted that Murdoch may not really be shutting down this tabloid. He may be pulling a kind of Erik Prince move and rebranding News of the World like Prince did when he changed Blackwater to Xe to dodge and escape scrutiny.

The Washington Post blog covers how “shuttering” News of the World may have been a plan in the works, “part of a longer-term plan to integrate with The Sun, another Murdoch-owned publication.” Reports on plans to integrate News International’s daily with the Sunday titles seem credible. And, if you follow the money, advertisers that left News of the World are moving to The Sun.

The shuffling just makes it even more important that a judicial inquiry with teeth takes place.