Britain's press watchdog, charged with keeping newspapers out of trouble, was in the embarrassing position of having to say sorry itself yesterday, apologising for potentially misleading comments made by its chairman about the phone-hacking scandal.
Lady Buscombe, who joined the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) last year, issued a formal statement of regret in court after legal action brought by Mark Lewis, a lawyer acting for one of the public figures whose phone was targeted. The PCC also agreed to pay him undisclosed damages and legal costs. It is thought to be the first successful case against the commission.
Mr Lewis had argued that public statements made by the Tory peer may have suggested he had lied to MPs about the extent of the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World.
It is hugely embarrassing for the commission, which is tasked with ensuring newspapers "take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information". A spokesman said he was unable to comment on details of the legal settlement because of a confidentiality agreement.
Mr Lewis represented Gordon Taylor, head of the Professional Footballers' Association, who sued the News of the World for hiring a private investigator who listened to his mobile phone messages. During a parliamentary inquiry last September, Mr Lewis told MPs an officer involved in the case had claimed the phones of "something like 6,000 people" had been hacked.
His account ran counter to a version of events endorsed by the PCC, which concluded that only eight people, including Mr Taylor, had been the victims of the phone hacking scam.
In a speech made to the Society of Editors, Lady Buscombe cited "new evidence" suggesting that Mr Lewis had misquoted the officer, Detective Sergeant Mark Maberly. She added: "Any suggestion that a parliamentary inquiry has been misled is, of course, an extremely serious matter."
At the High Court yesterday, the PCC and Lady Buscombe apologised for any insinuation that Mr Lewis had deliberately misled the inquiry. "The Commission and Baroness Buscombe regret that the statement may have been misunderstood and that this has caused concern to Mr Lewis," the court statement said.
Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator at the centre of the case, has already been told by the High Court that he must reveal which journalists told him to intercept voicemails. He has been granted permission to appeal against the decision.
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