Police have arrested the private eye at the heart of the scandal over illegal newspaper telephone hacking, which forced Rupert Murdoch to shut Britain's most-read newspaper and rocked the media and political elite.

The media industry, politicians and police have been hit this year by revelations that journalists and private investigators illegally intercepted mobile phone voicemail messages to get gossip for stories. Detectives are also looking into whether reporters paid police for information.

The case forced Murdoch's News Corp to shut the News of the World tabloid in July. Top London police officers have resigned and Prime Minister David Cameron's media advisor - a former News of the World editor - quit and was arrested.

Police said a 41-year-old man has been detained in London on suspicion of conspiring to intercept voicemail messages and perverting the course of justice.

Sky TV, part-owned by News Corp, said the man was Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator accused of listening to phone mail messages on behalf of journalists. Mulcaire's lawyer was not immediately available for comment.

Mulcaire, 41, a former professional footballer, worked for years as a private investigator for the News of the World. Questions for News Corp executives in parliamentary hearings have focussed on how much they knew about his activities.

Police have made about 20 arrests in the phone hacking case so far, while others have been held on suspicion of hacking into computers and paying police for information.

Suspected targets of the telephone hacking at the News of the World include celebrities and politicians, families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and crime victims, including a missing schoolgirl who was later found dead.

The scandal forced Murdoch's News Corp to abandon plans to take complete control over BSkyB satellite TV broadcaster, and has put his son James, the executive in charge of UK operations, under fire in parliamentary hearings.

Cameron has established an inquiry into press practices, which in recent weeks has heard testimony from movie stars, politicians and crime victims complaining that they have been hounded by reporters whose methods they believe are illegal.

(Reporting by Stephen Addison)