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Friday, April 8, 2011

British Tabloid Accepts Liability in Phone Hackings

News International, the British publishing division of Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper empire, publicly apologized on Friday for the illegal interception of celebrities’ voice mail by journalists at the company’s tabloid newspaper The News of the World.
After a series of celebrities, figures in professional soccer and other prominent people sued the company, News International said that it admitted liability in eight cases and that it was setting up a plan to pay compensation in others.
“Following an extensive internal investigation and disclosures through civil legal cases, News International has decided to approach some civil litigants with an unreserved apology and an admission of liability in cases meeting specific criteria,” it said in a statement.
The statement went on: “Past behavior at The News of the World in relation to voice-mail interception is a matter of genuine regret. It is now apparent that our previous inquiries failed to uncover important evidence and we acknowledge our actions then were not sufficiently robust.”
The admission was a stark reversal for News International in the growing scandal. Before Friday the company had insisted that the hacking that took place at The News of the World between 2004 and 2006 was limited to what it called a single “rogue” reporter and a private investigator who worked for the newspaper. Both men were jailed in 2007 for intercepting voice mail after complaints were lodged by members of the British royal household, including Prince William and Prince Harry.
But information seized by the police from the files of the personal investigator during the original investigation began to emerge in the discovery process in civil lawsuits, and pointed to a much wider array of victims and broader use of hacking methods at The News of the World.
Earlier this week, two other journalists were arrested, questioned and released on bail as part of a renewed criminal inquiry into the five-year-old case. At the same time, Scotland Yard investigators searched the paper’s newsroom.
News International would not say Friday why it had made the decision to apologize now, although the search of the newsroom is likely to have shaken the tabloid. In addition, two weeks ago a high court judge, Geoffrey Vos, ordered that hundreds of thousands of the paper’s e-mail messages be disclosed to litigants in the growing list of lawsuits.
News International said that it had acknowledged liability in eight civil cases and that it hoped to settle with these claimants soon. The plaintiffs include the actress Sienna Miller; the British politician Tessa Jowell; Ms. Jowell’s former husband, David Mills; Skylet Andrew, a sports agent; the sports commentator Andy Gray; Ms. Miller’s stepmother, the interior designer Kelly Hoppen; Nicola Phillips, a press agent; and Joan Hammell, who was an aide to former deputy prime minister John Prescott.
The company currently faces 16 other civil lawsuits concerning hacking between 2004 and 2006, and lawyers said that more suits could still be lodged against it. To deal with the outstanding cases, News International said it was establishing a compensation plan and proposing that claims be overseen by an independent adjudicator such as a retired judge. News International also proposed that in order to speed up the process, several of the claimants should join together to file group litigation.
The company said, however, that it was not admitting liability in all cases, and would continue to contest claims where it thought no phone hacking had taken place or where there was not enough evidence to support the claim.
Mark Lewis, the lawyer for some of those bringing suits against The News of the World, said that none of his clients had seen any offers yet, so he could not say for sure why News International had taken this latest step.
“I suspect they were forced into making this move as an effort to try and manage a situation that is going against them,” he said. “The publicity has probably been very damaging.”
Still, he said, “it is a good step in the right direction, and it indicates that there are some concessions, that they accept that the hacking was not limited to one or two people.” He added: “It’s early days. When offers are actually made and people can consider those offers, we will have more to go on.”Mr. Lewis noted that in addition to the threat of more civil litigation, “there is of course an ongoing criminal enquiry into the actions of some journalists, which is impossible to settle, and will continue regardless.”
The BBC reported that News International hoped to pay out less than £20 million ($33 million) to the victims, and that most claims would be settled for less than £100,000 ($163,800) each. The company, however, called the report speculative.
The phone hacking scandal was consuming increasing amounts of corporate time and attention, and as more lawsuits were filed, it threatened to become increasingly expensive and damaging for the reputation of the company, part of Mr. Murdoch’s News Corporation empire. The scandal has also engulfed Scotland Yard, which was criticized for what some critics called a lax original investigation in 2006 and for failing to inform all the victims of phone hacking by the News of the World. Scotland Yard, which reopened the investigation earlier this year, said on Friday that it had no comment on News International’s announcement. Prosecutors are formally investigating the police’s initial response to the case. The scandal also claimed the scalp of the newspaper’s editor, Andy Coulson, who left the newspaper after the hacking episode in 2007. He went on to become communications director for Prime Minister David Cameron. Mr. Coulson denied ever knowing of hacking under his editorship, but he was nonetheless forced to resign from his position in the Conservative government in January over the growing publicity for the scandal, saying that continued speculation about his possible role in the scandal was interfering with his job.
In 2007, News International carried out its own internal investigation and said that it had found nothing to suggest that the hacking was more widespread. But last month, executives acknowledged that the tabloid’s computers had retained an archive of millions of e-mail messages that it had previously claimed were lost in transit to storage in India. They said they would search the archive for any material relevant to the phone-hacking inquiry, and pass along any it found to the police.

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