Updated at 8:15 a.m. ET: LONDON — The chairman of the Senate commerce committee signaled he will be paying close attention to the findings of a U.K. report into phone-hacking and media ethics by newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch and others, amid concern U.S. laws may have been broken.
Senator Jay Rockefeller called on investigators in the U.K. to hold media companies accountable for their "deplorable conduct," ahead of the release of a report by the year-long Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press Thursday.
It is expected to be "excoriating" about the wrongdoing of journalists.
Numerous celebrities — including actor Hugh Grant and Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling — told the inquiry how they had been harassed, bullied, and traumatized by the press.
But ordinary people, such as Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old girl who was abducted and murdered in 2002, were also subjected to invasion of privacy in the most shocking of circumstances.
It emerged that while she was missing, employees of Rupert Murdoch's News of the World tabloid hacked into her telephone. Outrage over this case prompted Murdoch to shut down the tabloid and led U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron to commission the Leveson Inquiry.
Former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, who was later hired as Cameron's chief media adviser, and Rebekah Brooks, the former CEO of News Corporation’s U.K. arm News International, appeared in court Thursday to face charges related to allegations of corrupt payments made to public officials, ITV News reported. They were later released on bail.
This probe has raised the specter of possible charges in the U.S. under the 1977 Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, whose anti-bribery provisions could ensnare executives if it is proved that payoffs were made to people such as British police officers.
Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, said in an emailed statement sent to NBC News that he feared that illegal journalistic practices may have been used on U.S. citizens.
He said he hoped Leveson’s report and other investigations would "continue to clear the air" and hold the media organizations involved “accountable for their deplorable conduct.”
"While I understand that the main goal of this report is to make policy recommendations, the core of the inquiry remains the illegal and unethical practices of newspapers owned by the News Corporation," Rockefeller said.
"I remain deeply concerned that these companies may have violated U.S. laws and injured U.S. citizens," he added.
The Leveson report could have implications for CNN’s Piers Morgan, who was previously editor of the News of the World and the Mirror newspapers.
In a 2006 article in the Daily Mail tabloid, Morgan said he was played a message left by former Beatle Paul McCartney on the phone of his then wife Heather Mills. Mills has said there's no way Morgan could have obtained the message honestly.
At the Leveson Inquiry, Morgan refused to reveal how he was able to listen to the message, saying this would compromise a source.
There have been calls from several victims of press intrusion for the government to regulate the media, an idea some have likened to state censorship in countries like China.
Fear for free speech
After retired teacher Christopher Jefferies, 67, of Bristol, was wrongly arrested for the murder of a young woman renting an apartment he owned, his character was picked over and savaged in the press and he later won substantial damages for defamation from eight newspapers.
He told ITV News that the government had to introduce some form of statutory regulation of the press.
"I'm sure that I and many other people will continue to feel extremely angry unless the sort of action which I have been suggesting needs to be taken, is taken," he said.
However, more than 80 politicians from all three main parties in the U.K. signed a letter published in the Guardian and Telegraph newspapers warning Cameron against state control of the media.
"We believe in free speech and are opposed to the imposition of any form of statutory control," they wrote.
Former News of the World journalist Tom Latham told ITV News that newspapers were already not running stories in the public interest in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry.
"If you cede anything to the government it's a slippery slope and then you start to lose control of the freedom of the press,” he said.
But, given the paper’s history, Leveson may be more sympathetic to the complaints of people like Hugh Grant.
He has revealed that details of hospital visits he made were leaked to the press, his garbage was rifled through, his ex-girlfriend and his infant daughter harassed.
Grant said articles in The Sun and the Daily Express about his visit to a hospital emergency room was a gross intrusion of privacy.
"I think no one would expect their medical records to be made public or to be appropriated by newspapers for commercial profit," the actor said. "That is fundamental to our British sense of decency."
Reuters, The Associated Press and ITV News contributed to this report. ITV News is NBC's U.K. partner.
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