The sudden admission was a dramatic about-face for the company, News International, which claimed for years that it had thoroughly examined the matter and was certain that the hacking had been limited to one “rogue” reporter and a private investigator. Neither of those claims was true, it turns out.
“Past behavior at the News of the World in relation to voice mail is a matter of genuine regret,” News International, the British publishing division of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire and the owner of the tabloid, said in a statement. “It is now apparent that our previous inquiries failed to uncover important evidence and we acknowledge our actions then were not sufficiently robust.”
At least 24 celebrities, politicians and other public figures are currently suing News International, claiming that their cellphone voice-mail messages were illegally hacked into, or intercepted, by News of the World journalists hunting for stories. The company said that it was admitting wrongdoing in eight of those cases, those brought by, among others, the actress Sienna Miller; Tessa Jowell, a Labour Party politician; Andy Gray, a sports commentator and former athlete; and Nicola Phillips, a publicist who used to work for the celebrity publicist Max Clifford.
“News International has decided to approach some civil litigants with an unreserved apology and an admission of liability in cases meeting specific criteria,” the company said in its statement.
Much of the evidence in those and other cases was seized by the police in their initial investigation of hacking several years ago, and has come to light only recently in court documents. Unless many of the plaintiffs decide to settle, more damaging disclosures about News of the World’s culpability could emerge as the current cases, and others that have not yet been filed, wend their way through the courts.
News International proposed that cases other than the eight it hoped to settle might be overseen by an independent adjudicator. It said it planned to set up “a compensation scheme with a view to dealing with justifiable claims fairly and efficiently,” a plan that could cost it millions of pounds.
But, it added, it would contest those cases that “we believe are without merit or where we are not responsible.”
Two weeks ago, a High Court judge, Geoffrey Vos, ordered the “rolling disclosure” of tens of thousands of potentially damning News of the World e-mails to potential hacking victims. He has also ordered the police to release pertinent information to potential victims. It is unclear how many people were made targets by News of the World, but some estimates have put the figure in the thousands.
Tom Watson, a Labour Party member of Parliament who has been a vocal critic of News International, said that the company had little choice but to try to settle. But the offer was “hardly the end of it,” he said.
“There are hundreds, if not thousands, of other victims involved,” he said in an interview. “And they’ve just got a lot of unanswered questions hanging in the air, and we are going to keep going until we get those questions answered.”
Mark Lewis, a lawyer for several of the people suing the company, said some plaintiffs were likely to accept “reasonable” offers from the company.
“The difficulty will be that without the full truth, it’s difficult to assess the offer,” he said in an interview. “If you don’t know how many times your phone was hacked, it’s hard to know whether an offer is acceptable.”
Speaking of News of the World, Mr. Lewis said that some of the hacking cases that the paper was offering to settle were so blatant that “the only people who didn’t know were their readers.”
Graham Bowley and Jo Becker contributed reporting from New York, and Ravi Somaiya from London.