LONDON (Reuters) - A public apology from Rupert Murdoch’s UK newspaper arm designed to contain an escalating phone-hacking scandal looks to have failed after a judge said civil cases against the firm could run into next year at least.
At a case-management conference called to decide how best to manage a potential flood of lawsuits, the presiding judge said on Friday he would hear four or five test cases, potentially including the actress Sienna Miller, towards the year end.
So far, around 20 public figures who believe their voicemail messages were intercepted by journalists at the popular News of the World tabloid are suing News International, the UK newspaper arm of News Corp.
But many more are expected to come forward after the group apologised to eight victims last week and said it would set up a compensation scheme.
Potential claimants will have to weigh up whether to accept a pay off or go to court and run the risk of large legal bills and potentially embarrassing information being made public.
Just last week News Corp’s deputy chief operating officer James Murdoch, the son of the company patriarch, said the company had managed to “put this problem into a box” but Judge Geoffrey Vos made clear that was not the case.
“The show ain’t over. That’s pretty obvious,” Vos told a London courtroom, packed with teams of lawyers and reporters.
An investigation into newsgathering practices at the News of the World has so far touched celebrities, government ministers, sports stars and British Prime Minister David Cameron, repeatedly making headline news in rival publications.
Sienna Miller’s lawyer said in court that her former partner the actor Jude Law may also start proceedings against the paper.
The scandal has also clouded a planned deal by parent company News Corp for a $14 billion (8.6 billion pounds) buyout of pay-TV group BSkyB, with critics saying the government should put it on hold until the hacking investigation is over.
Vos proposed trying as test cases those brought by Miller, sports agent Skylet Andrew, ex-sports pundit Andy Gray and interior designer Kelly Hoppen because they encompassed a wide range of issues and were closest to being ready for trial.
“It’s hard to imagine there would be generic questions that would not be raised by those cases,” Vos said. They could be ready for trial by the end of the year or early next, he said.
Police are also carrying out a criminal investigation. They have arrested three senior News of the World journalists so far this year, including one on Thursday.
“It’s worth noting that the judges in this case so far have been absolutely determined to get to the bottom of this,” media consultant Steve Hewlett told Reuters.
“And now we have police poring over new information and in the background we have parliamentary select committees who are seething as they believe they were also seriously misled.”
News International’s News of the World sells almost 3 million copies every Sunday — more than any of its rivals — fuelled by front-page tales of celebrity scandal.
But a week ago the company admitted that some of those stories may have come from hacking private phone messages and it accepted liability for the first time. News International apologised to eight people including Miller and British politician Tessa Jowell who are suing the company.
A senior media lawyer who asked not to be named told Reuters the case would continue to play out in the press as both the criminal investigation and civil cases rage on.
“News International are hoping to neutralise this by settling with people,” he said. “But as long as there are sufficient claimants who haven’t been bought off, then it will continue and litigation is a slow process.
“This is personal and about the principle.”
George Galloway, a left-wing politician who believes he was targeted, said he was worried the company would force people to accept compensation rather than run the risk of big legal bills.
“I’m concerned about what’s going on in the background, which is that they’re trying to prevent the truth from coming out by offering everybody lots of money,” he said.
For years, News International maintained that phone hacking at the tabloid was limited to a few rogue individuals, a stance seen as a bid to protect the reputations of those at the top.
Its royal editor and a private investigator were jailed in 2007 for hacking into voicemail messages of aides to the royal family. Editor Andy Coulson resigned, saying he took ultimate responsibility but had not known about the practice.
Coulson later became the prime minister’s spokesman, but resigned from that position in January as a new police investigation gathered steam.
The case has also clouded the BSkyB deal, which critics fear would increase News Corp’s influence over the British media. The government is expected to approve it in the coming weeks.
Writing by Georgina Prodhan and Kate Holton; Editing by Chris Wickham and Elizabeth Fullerton