New of the World owner News International has apologised for the illegal practice of hacking into mobile phone voice message boxes and will set up a compensation fund to pay the claimants sueing the newspaper over the scandal.
The dramatic development comes after years of damaging revelations alleging that the Sunday tabloid illegally tapped into the voicemails of a number of celebrities and politicians.
News International is prepared to apologise and admit liability “in some cases”, according to the BBC, with a number of litigants currently lining up to take the newspaper to court.
The Beeb also reports that News International “hopes to pay out less than £20m in total to the victims”.
An initial eight of those are set to receive an apology, including actress Sienna Miller, former culture secretary Tessa Jowell and ex Sky Sports commentator Andy Gray.
The others are Jowell’s former husband David Mills, football agent Sky Andrew, publicist Nicola Phillips, John Presscott’s former aide Joan Hammell, and interior designer Kelly Hoppen. News International will offer to pay damages and legal fees.
NI is still disputing accusations that Hammell had her phone hacked in 2009, but admits liability between 2004 and 2006.
In all, 24 are known to be sueing the paper, so more payouts and acts of contrition are likely. It also wants all the cases heard together in a bid to nip the scandal in the bud. Many will argue that it has already failed to stop the fiasco from spiraling out of control.
The publisher, which also owns the Sun and the Times, has until this year insisted that royal reporter Clive Goodman was the only “rogue” journalist at the paper responsible for hacking, without the knowledge or permission of any of its executives.
However, in today’s statement, it said: “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.
“We have also asked our lawyers to establish a compensation scheme with a view to dealing with justifiable claims fairly and efficiently.”
“We will, however, continue to contest cases that we believe are without merit or where we are not responsible.
“Past behaviour at the News of the World in relation to voicemail interception is a matter of genuine regret,” it said in a statement.
“It is now apparent that our previous inquiries failed to uncover important evidence and we acknowledge our actions were not sufficiently robust.”
News International, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, said it would continue to co-operate with the Metropolitan Police inquiry, which has thus far resulted in two arrests – chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck and former news editor Ian Edmondson – the biggest scalps to date.
A lawyer for some alleged victims said the move was a “step in the right direction”.
“Offers will have to be looked at and considered, but they should have done this in the first place,” he said.
Former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil said it was a “complete mea culpa”.
“They are trying to close it down with their cheque book but I don’t think it will succeed,” he told the BBC.
According to MediaGuardian, NI’s admission will not lead to any resignations from executives.