The “News of the World” phone hacking story has finally broken through into front page mainstream media coverage.   First, there were the arrests of two individuals who were prominent at the newspaper at the relevant time (pictured right).  Then, a week before the Case Management Conference where all the cases are to be heard by the assigned judge, Mr Justice Vos, News International has made a bold move – issuing a public statement indicating that it intends to “approach some civil litigants” with an unreserved apology and an admission of liability.

We will discuss this statement below after considering the week’s other developments.  We dealt with last week’s phone hacking news in a post entitled – “Hacking Parliament and the Courts – a busy week“.   In our weekly round up we (correctly) anticipated that there would be more developments in the story this weekalthough the developments were, in truth, much more dramatic than we had in mind.

On Tuesday 5 April 2011, there was a Norwich Pharmacal application before Mr Justice Vos made on behalf of Sienna Miller and her publicist Ciara Parkes. The “Guardian” reported that an order was made against mobile telephone provider Vodafone requiring it to reveal who dialled the voicemail numbers of Ms Miller and Ms Parkes in apparent attempt to access their messages.

Later that morning, the DPP Keir Starmer QC, gave evidence to the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee.  His evidence can be seen on Parliament TV here.  His evidence related to a detailed letter which he had to the Culture Media and Sport Committee on 1 April 2011.   As noted by the “Guardian” this letter appeared to contradict the account of the CPS advice which had previously been given to Parliament by Acting Deputy Commissioner John Yates.   Mr Starmer summarised the position by saying that

the legal advice given by the CPS to the Metropolitan police on the interpretation of the relevant offences did not limit the scope and extent of the criminal investigation”

The story was also reported in the “Independent” and the “Financial Times”.

On Wednesday 6 April 2011, the police finally made their move. Former “News of the World” News Editor Ian Edmondson and current chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck were arrested by “Operation Weeting” officers.   The Guardian reported that they were arrested after voluntarily presenting themselves at different police stations in south-west London.  They were both later released on police bail to return in September 2011. Their homes, and Mr Thurlbeck’s office and computer at the “News of the World”  were searched by police officers.  The arrests were widely reported – including by the BBC, the “Daily Mail” and even (briefly) in the “Daily Mirror”  (which has been unsually quiet about the misfortunes of the “News of the World” in this area).

On Thursday 7 April 2011, Nick Davies reported in the “Guardian” that the mobile phone companies were disputing Mr Yates’ evidence to parliament that the police had “ensured” the phone companies warned all of their suspected victims.   The “Guardian” reports that all four companies have said that the police made no such move and that most of the victims were never warned by them.  The Home Affairs Select Committee has indicated that it will write to Mr Yates for clarification.

Then, on Friday 8 April 2011, News International (the parent company of News  Group Newspapers Ltd, the publisher of the “News of the World”) announced that

“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”.

The statement went on to say, in carefully measured language

“We have also asked our lawyers to establish a compensation scheme with a view to dealing with justifiable claims fairly and efficiently.

This will begin the process of bringing these cases to a fair resolution with damages appropriate to the extent of the intrusion”.

No indication was given of the “criteria” which were being applied in deciding whether apologies were to be made.   Shortly after this announcement the BBC’s Business Editor Robert Peston – who seems to have good contacts with News International in relation to this story – disclosed on his blog his “understanding” that News International had offered to settle with the following claimants

1)  Sienna Miller, the actor
2)  Tessa Jowell, the former Labour culture secretary
3)  David Mills, the lawyer and Ms Jowell’s estranged husband
4)  Kelly Hoppen, the designer, in respect of phone hacking in 2004-6, but not in relation to her later claim
5)  Andy Gray, the former footballer and current commentator for Talk Sport radio
6)  Joan Hammell, a former aide to John Prescott (though not Mr Prescott himself)
7)  Ms Nicola Phillips, the assistant to the celebrity publicist, Max Clifford
8)  Sky Andrew, the former Olympian and talent agent.

According to Mr Peston there are presently “24 active cases”.  He gave no indication as to how News International selected one third of these for apologies and settlement offers.  No apologies or offers appear to have been made public.

There is no indication that any of these eight individuals have, in fact, accepted offers of settlement and it appears that at present all 24 cases are proceeding – and will, presumably, be dealt with at the Case Management Conference on 15 April 2011.

The reaction to News International’s apparent admission of liability – or rather indication that it has approached individuals to make such an admission – has been mixed.  Former MP George Galloway, who said he had been shown proof that his phone had been hacked, claimed the statement was a “cynical attempt to protect the company’s chief executive Rebekah Wade“.  Labour leader Ed Miliband demanded to know who knew about the “criminal behaviour”, and when and called for a “thorough investigation“.  Reuters suggested that there would be a “rush of phone hack claims“.  There have been renewed calls for a “public inquiry” – see for example, Brian Cathcart’s post on the Index on Censorship blog on 8 April 2011.

The well-informed Mr Peston described the News International’s “settlement strategy” in January 2011 as being the “BP Strategy”

It goes like this: company suffers a disaster; company offers comprehensive financial settlement to victims of the disaster; company admits to its own shortcomings, but implies that an entire industry has also engaged in similar flawed practices“.

Bearing in mind the arrests, the Parliamentary investigations and the growing number of unsettled claims, it seems unlikely that this strategy will bring the affair to a conclusion any time soon.