LONDON — Illegal eavesdropping was widely practiced by Britain's tabloid journalists, producing stories that were both intrusive and untrue, a lawyer for several phone hacking victims said Wednesday.

Mark Lewis told a U.K. media ethics inquiry that phone hacking was not limited to Rupert Murdoch's News of the World tabloid, which the media mogul shut down earlier this year as outrage grew over the hacking scandal.

Lewis claimed that listening in on voice mails was so easy that many journalists regarded it as no more serious than "driving at 35 mph in a 30 mph zone."

"In a way, I feel sorry for the News of the World, or certainly the News of the World's readers," Lewis said. "Because it was a much more widespread practice than just one newspaper."

He said the News of the World got caught because it hired a private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, who kept detailed records of his snooping assignments. Mulcaire and News of the World reporter Clive Goodman were jailed in 2007 for hacking into the voice mails of royal aides.

"The fact that evidence doesn't exist in written form doesn't mean to say that the crime didn't happen," Lewis said.

Lewis said when a News of the World reporter was arrested for phone hacking in 2006, he had a "eureka moment" about the source of a false story concerning two of his clients.

The story alleged a romantic relationship between soccer players' association chief Gordon Taylor and lawyer Joanne Armstrong, with whom he had been photographed having lunch. Taylor said he believed the story was based on a voice mail message from Armstrong thanking Taylor for speaking at her father's funeral.

The message said: "Thank you for yesterday. You were wonderful."

Lewis said a tabloid journalist "added two and two and made 84. ... If it hadn't been so sad, it would have been funny."

In 2008, Murdoch's News International agreed to pay Taylor hundreds of thousands of pounds (dollars) in compensation for the hacking of his phone in return for keeping quiet about the deal — one of several attempts by the company to hush up the scale of its illegal activity.

Murdoch shut down the News of the World in July after evidence emerged that it had routinely eavesdropped on the voice mails of public figures, celebrities and even crime victims in its search for scoops.

Lewis has represented many prominent hacking victims, including the family of murdered 13-year-old Milly Dowler, whose voice mails were accessed by the News of the World after she disappeared in 2002. The girl's parents spoke Monday before the U.K. inquiry, saying the hacking gave them false hope their daughter was still alive during the investigation into her disappearance.

Prime Minister David Cameron set up the public inquiry into media ethics and practices in response to the still-evolving hacking scandal. This week it has heard testimony from celebrities including actor Hugh Grant and comedian Steve Coogan.

Later Wednesday it will hear from the parents of Madeleine McCann, who vanished from a hotel room in May 2007 during a family vacation in Portugal.

The inquiry, led by Judge Brian Leveson, plans to issue a report next year and could recommend major changes to media regulation in Britain.


Leveson Inquiry:

Jill Lawless can be reached at: