Charlotte Harris: 'Sorry' means something else at News International

What was News International thinking when it released its statement of its intention to apologise on Friday? Getting an apology out of the News of the World has never been easy. Normally, after weeks of front-page splashes and sensational headlines, a tiny, mealy-mouthed apology appears in what feels like the gardening section. So the surprise announcement by News International that it had "decided to approach some civil litigants with an unreserved apology" raised the question of whether such apologies were also going to be in the usual house style.

There are some serious qualifications to this "unreserved apology". It is limited only to voicemail interception during the years 2004-2006. There is no admission or apology for anybody who believes that they were intercepted before that. To discover the full extent of interception before 2004 and after 2006, the civil actions and the latest Met investigation will have to keep pushing forward. In the excitement of receiving any admission whatsoever from News International, we could overlook just how narrow it is.

There is no explanation of its past behaviour. While it says that it is a "matter of regret", and that its actions were not "sufficiently robust", we are not told why. There is no admission of a cover-up; no explanation as to who knew and who did not know at executive level. Was it the case that the "important evidence" it "failed to uncover" was recovered by the simple act of asking its news editor whether he did it, and checking to see whether anyone else might have too? Perhaps the evidence about the handling of the original investigation that was given to the Media Select Committee should be revisited.

The term "not sufficiently robust" appears somewhat generous. As Assistant Commissioner Yates said to the select committee in October 2009, "Neville, whoever he may be...". Neville Thurlbeck was arrested on Tuesday and his future at the paper must now be in doubt.

The statement is also self-congratulatory. "It was our discovery and voluntary disclosure of this evidence in January that led to the reopening of the police investigation." So it had nothing to do with the naming of one journalist in court documents, the imminent disclosure of others named on evidence, or the increasing disquiet among those who believed for years that their phones were unsafe? To take credit for the reopening of the Met investigation while offering a qualified apology is perverse.

But at least NI is finally admitting that it owes at least some people an apology. Yet it is difficult not to feel cynical. The News of the World has found itself in an untenable position, with orders for disclosure against it, the Met, Glenn Mulcaire, and Vodafone. NI has been caught in a compromising position and been exposed, and so is simply adopting the standard journalistic ploy of taking control of the story. It is difficult to consider the statement as other than damage limitation.

Now a case management conference looms, which the parties representing the civil litigants, the defendants, and other third parties will attend, making representations to Mr Justice Vos. One way or another, it is hoped that the truth will come out and that this will change the landscape of red-top practices for good.

Charlotte Harris, a media lawyer at Mishcon de Reya, represents several complainants against News International