The phone hacking scandal took another dramatic turn yesterday when a leading lawyer claimed that up to 7,000 people may have had their phone messages intercepted by the News of the World.
As the paper's owner News International was engulfed by a torrent of fresh claims and condemnation, after the paper's public apology for "voicemail interception" in 2004-2006, Charlotte Harris suggested many public figures suing for breach of privacy would not settle quickly or cheaply.
Another lawyer estimated that the total legal bill facing the paper's owner, News International, could reach £40m, double the amount the company is thought to have set aside. Rod Dadak described the paper's apparent mass hacking of mobile phones as "Rupert Murdoch's Watergate". "It's a black hole," said Mr Dadak, of Lewis Silkin, who acts for potential litigants. "£20m may be substantially too little, it could be double that."
Ms Harris, a partner at Mishcon de Reya, made her claim hours after the News of the World printed an apology for its role in eavesdropping messages of public figures. In a statement headed "Voicemail interception: An apology" on page two, the paper said: "Here today, we publicly and unreservedly apologise to all such individuals. It was and remains unacceptable."
Some critics have suggested that News International's new approach – speaking of "genuine regret" and offering to compensate several victims – is a damage limitation exercise.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4's The World This Weekend, Ms Harris – who secured publicist Max Clifford's £1m payout for being hacked – said: "What we have at the moment is an apology and an admission, having been working on this for a very long time. We haven't even got near the truth yet."
Discussing the number of phones which could have been hacked into, she said: "If you consider that if you hack into one person's phone, you have access to everyone who has left a message for them. And then, if you go into the person who has left a message, you get all of theirs. You have got to be running into several thousand, just from that methodology. To put a figure on it, it is certainly not a handful – maybe 4,000, 6,000, 7,000 – a huge amount of people."
Forty-five detectives at the Metropolitan Police are carrying out a new investigation into hacking by journalists at the News of the World. Lawyers have warned that News International could be at risk of a corporate prosecution under the law on mobile phone interception, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. Speaking to Reuters, Mr Dadak said: "This is Murdoch's Watergate because the cat is out of the bag. Two or three people have taken the rap but the powers that be must have known or turned a blind eye to what was going on. It couldn't be more serious."
Lawyers are expecting a flood of new claimants to join the 24 who have already begun civil proceedings for breach of privacy. The company admitted widespread wrongdoing on Friday, after five years of insisting the hacking was limited to a single rogue reporter, jailed royal editor Clive Goodman. Three days before, police arrested and bailed News of the World ex-assistant editor Ian Edmondson and chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck, who deny any involvement.
On Saturday, the Labour leader Ed Miliband said: "We have now got to get to the bottom of any criminal behaviour, which is a matter for the police and should be thoroughly investigated."
* Gordon Brown wanted to hold a judicial inquiry into allegations that the News of the World had hacked into the phones of Cabinet ministers and other public figures, it was claimed last night.
The then Prime Minister is said to have sought the investigation after becoming alarmed at new disclosures two years ago about the scale of the newspaper's interception of private messages. However his wishes were thwarted by Sir Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, on the grounds that launching an inquiry close to last year's election would have been too politically sensitive, The Guardian reported.
At the time the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson – who has always denied any knowledge of hacking – was overseeing communications for the Leader of the Opposition, David Cameron. While in Downing Street, Mr Brown is thought to have been concerned that his own phone messages had been eavesdropped and reportedly warned his Cabinet ally, Peter Mandelson, that the Business Secretary's phone may have been targeted.
A Cabinet Office spokeswoman made no comment on behalf of Britain's most senior civil servant, saying: "We never comment about any advice from a Cabinet Minister to a Prime Minister on any issue."
How much of a story?
News International's apology on Friday got a mixed reception in the papers over the weekend, as these word counts show...
* The Independent: 3,535
* The Guardian: 3,187
* The Times: 2,251
* The Daily Telegraph: 760
* Daily Mail: 588
* Daily Express: 405
* Daily Mirror: 118
* The Sun: 65
* The Observer: 3,417
* The Independent on Sunday: 2,768
* The Sunday Times: 1,329 (mainly in News Review)
* The Sunday Telegraph: 397
* News of the World: 386 (apology)
* The Sunday Express: 146
* Daily Star Sunday: 49
* The Mail on Sunday: 0