British authorities are launching an investigation into allegations that Rupert Murdoch's UK newspapers paid more than $1.5 million in hush money to try to cover up the fact that they were illegally hacking into cell phones in pursuit of stories.

Whoa. Read that over again. According to a blockbuster report in The Guardian yesterday:

But one senior source at the Met told the Guardian that during the Goodman inquiry, officers found evidence of News Group staff using private investigators who hacked into "thousands" of mobile phones. Another source with direct knowledge of the police findings put the figure at "two or three thousand" mobiles. They suggest that MPs from all three parties and cabinet ministers, including former deputy prime minister John Prescott and former culture secretary Tessa Jowell, were among the targets.

All of this reportedly surfaced after a News of the World reporter was jailed two years ago for hacking phones. At the time, the company said it was an isolated incident. But if the Guardian's report is true, Murdoch's UK tabloids are—incredibly—even more despicable than we would have thought. The Guardian says that the company has paid one million pounds in out-of-court settlements to keep it all quiet. It also insinuates that top editors including Rebekah Wade could be implicated, though the extent of individual executives' knowledge is not clear.

Rupert Murdoch has already denied the report. But for Americans, the story is already being cast as a direct, veiled assault on Murdoch himself. Not just because he's the lone News Corp. figure familiar to most Americans, but because every US competitor paper would love to see him smeared! Chiefly, the New York Times—who put the story on the front page of their website, and were sure to include the phrase "Murdoch Papers" in the headline. [The "Murdoch Papers" are the papers of News Corp's News International division: the Times of London and the Sunday Times (more respectable), and the News of the World and The Sun (dirty).]

So what we have here is, potentially, a clear case of blatant criminal misconduct at some of the biggest papers owned the world's biggest newspaper mogul—and this case could go all the way to the top. Or it could not! But watch gleefully as the New York Times reports the hell out of it, waging a newspaper war in its own "What newspaper war?" way. (Where are you on this, NY Daily News?). And really, this is beyond the pale, even for what are some of the least scrupulous papers in the world. Hacking phones and hiring private eyes are scumbag tactics. We would even expect better from Rupert Murdoch.

[Guardian, NYT. Pic: Getty]