LONDON // Revelations that reporters hacked into the mobile phone of a missing 13-year-old schoolgirl, who was later found murdered, rocked Britain's political, media and legal establishments yesterday.
The disclosure that reporters from the News of the World in 2002 had hacked the mobile of Milly Dowler, who was abducted and murdered as she walked home from school in Surrey in 2002, represented the latest twist in a long-running scandal involving journalists from the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sunday newspaper.
But while there had been little public sympathy for targets of phone hacking revealed previously - film stars, politicians, footballers and other celebrities - the fact that the innocent victim of a horrendous crime had also fallen prey to the practice caused widespread outrage.
Police have been investigating the hacking of celebrity phones by the newspaper staff and recently discovered the journalists had gained access to Milly's phone.
Milly's killer, who was already serving two life sentences for the murders of other young women, received a third life sentence for the schoolgirl's death at the end of his trial last month.
The prime minister, David Cameron, denounced the revelations as "quite, quite shocking" during a joint press conference with the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, in Kabul yesterday.
"On the question about the really appalling allegations about the telephone of Milly Dowler, if they are true, this is a truly dreadful act and a truly dreadful situation," Mr Cameron said.
Lord Prescott, the former deputy prime minister, said the incident should force the government to block the proposed takeover of the whole of BSkyB, the UK's biggest satellite broadcaster, by Mr Murdoch's News Corp.
Mark Lewis, a lawyer representing Bob and Sally Dowler, Milly's parents, condemned the newspaper's conduct as "heinous" and said that the fact the hackers had even deleted some messages from the schoolgirl's phone had given her family false hope that she was still alive.
Scotland Yard detectives, who are involved in their third inquiry into the phone hacking scandal - two previous investigations were branded a "whitewash" - will now be interviewing Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of the Murdoch parent company in the UK, News International, and the editor of the News of the World at the time of Milly's disappearance.
The scandal first came to light in 2006 when the newspaper's royal reporter and a private investigator were arrested and, later, jailed for hacking into phones of aides to members of the royal family.
Andy Coulson resigned as the paper's editor and later became Mr Cameron's director of communications, only to be forced from that position at the start of this year as the hacking allegations grew.
Until now, all alleged victims have been well-known public figures and include the actor Jude Law, the Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson and politicians, including Lord Prescott.
However, the disclosure that the newspaper's activities had the potential to interfere with a police murder inquiry has elevated the scandal to a new level.
News International acknowledged as much yesterday. "This particular case is clearly a development of great concern," it said, "and we will be conducting our own inquiries as a result. We will obviously co-operate fully with any police request on this should we be asked."