News of the World publisher News International was today preparing to pay out millions of pounds in compensation after it admitted liability for intercepting the telephone messages of a number of public figures including actress Sienna Miller.
The company said yesterday it had instructed lawyers to set up a compensation scheme to deal with “justifiable claims” and said “past behaviour” at the newspaper was “a matter of genuine regret”.
Mark Lewis, who is acting for a number of stars who claimed their phones were hacked, said the final compensation bill could easily run into millions of pounds.
The announcement came after a number of well-known figures took High Court action over allegations of phone-hacking.
It is understood that along with Miller, the company has issued apologies to former Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell, her estranged husband lawyer David Mills and footballer turned broadcaster Andy Gray.
Football agent Sky Andrew, publicist Nicola Phillips and Joan Hammell, a former special adviser to Lord Prescott, are also believed to have received apologies through their solicitors.
News International said the move applied to allegations of voicemail hacking at the News of the World from 2004 to 2006.
Designer Kelly Hoppen is also understood to have been issued with an apology, although only for that time period, and not for a later claim.
No one else is understood to have received an apology – other notable figures who have pursued the matter through the courts, including Leslie Ash and Lord Prescott, are not thought to be covered by the admissions.
In a statement, the company said: “News International has decided to approach some civil litigants with an unreserved apology and an admission of liability in cases meeting specific criteria.
“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.”
But the company said it would continue to contest cases that it believed were without merit.
The statement went on: “That said, past behaviour at the News of the World in relation to voicemail 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 company is working with the Metropolitan Police and it said it was its own “voluntary disclosure” in January which led to the re-opening of the police investigation.
Mr Lewis, of Taylor Hampton Solicitors, said yesterday: “At the moment it’s not been disclosed who is going to be compensated or how.”
Asked about the level of compensation expected, he said: “It will depend on what happened to the individuals involved.
“For some of these people, it has had far-reaching effects on their career. Some people have lost their jobs.”
The controversy has been a source of continuing embarrassment for News International at a time when its parent group, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, has been seeking to take full control of BSkyB.
Yesterday Lord Prescott, the former deputy prime minister, reiterated his call that the controversial takeover should be delayed until police have completed their inquiry into the allegations.
Earlier this week detectives investigating the allegations arrested the paper’s chief reporter and its former head of news.
Neville Thurlbeck, 50, and Ian Edmondson, 42, were held by Scotland Yard detectives on Tuesday when they voluntarily attended separate police stations in south-west London.
Officers questioned the pair on suspicion of conspiring to intercept communications and unlawfully intercepting voicemail messages.
The men were later released on police bail to return in September.
Thurlbeck is a veteran reporter who has brought in some of the News of the World’s most famous scoops, while Edmondson was sacked as the paper’s assistant editor (news) in January after evidence emerged linking him to phone-tapping.
The arrests underlined the Metropolitan Police’s determination to investigate the scandal thoroughly after criticism that an earlier inquiry was inadequate.
They were the first people arrested since Scotland Yard reopened its inquiry into the claims.
A committee of MPs heard allegations in 2009 that a transcript of voicemail messages between Professional Footballers’ Association boss Gordon Taylor and his legal adviser was prepared for Thurlbeck.
Scotland Yard has endured repeated criticism over its handling of its original phone-hacking inquiry, which led to the conviction of News of the World royal editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire in 2007.
The paper’s former editor Andy Coulson resigned as Prime Minister David Cameron’s director of communications in January as he said that the continuing row about the affair was making his job impossible.
Days later the Met launched a fresh investigation, codenamed Operation Weeting, after receiving “significant new information” from News International.
The decision came amid a steady flow of new allegations about the hacking of the mobile phone messages of high-profile public figures, said to also include Miller’s ex-partner Jude Law, former prime minister Gordon Brown, ex-footballer Paul Gascoigne and comedian Steve Coogan.
Miller obtained a High Court ruling on Tuesday ordering Vodafone to disclose data relating to other mobile phone users so she can identify who called her number in an attempt to access her voicemails.
Supermodel Elle Macpherson’s former adviser Mary-Ellen Field and jockey Kieren Fallon were among those who have issued proceedings against the News of the World, Mr Lewis said.
Ms Field, who advised the supermodel on intellectual property and licensing agreements from March 2003, lost her job in January 2005 after Macpherson accused her of leaking stories to the press.
It is understood that in an effort to speed the legal process, there will be group litigation bringing together cases.
Lord Prescott and Labour MP Chris Bryant are seeking judicial review of the police response to their cases.
Former Met commissioner and London mayoral candidate Brian Paddick, who believes his own phone was hacked, said the News of the World was only apologising in cases where it had been “caught red-handed”.
Asked where yesterday’s statement took the issue, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I don’t think it takes us very far, to be honest.
“These are people who have issued proceedings, they’ve got the courts to force News International to hand over evidence, and it would appear that in these cases News International has been caught red-handed, and that only in those circumstances are they prepared to make an apology and pay up,” he said.
“Clearly they know what the evidence is that’s going to go into the public domain and they realise they don’t have a leg to stand on, and in those cases where it’s absolutely obvious they have done wrong, they’ve agreed to apologise and compensate.”
Publicist Max Clifford, who brought a private case against the News of the World and received a reported settlement of £1m, said the paper's hand had been forced into the apology.
He told the BBC: “It’s now acknowledged that this was widespread at News International.
“Their hand has been forced really, they are not doing what they want to do but what they have to do it.”
He said he would be “very surprised” if criminal charges didn’t follow.
“What they did was to break the law and you can imagine as more comes to light, the more the police find out, the more information and facts emerge, the more likelihood there is of criminal charges.”
Mr Clifford also confirmed that his former assistant Nicola Phillips had her phone hacked by the paper while she was working for him.
“I know they made her an offer some time ago which she turned down,” he explained.
He added that the paper was not alone in phone hacking: “I believe this was widespread in Fleet Street for many many years.”