Criminal practices inside the News of the World went far further than phone hacking, it emerged yesterday, as News International finally admitted in the High Court that it also illegally accessed computer emails.
In an hour-long series of humbling and expensive apologies that potentially passed £10m in damages and legal costs, the admission of computer hacking opens up a new chapter in the scandal, threatening the already shredded reputation of Rupert Murdoch's media empire.
After months of denial and legal obstruction, News International offered a series of "sincere apologies" for the "damage and distress" it had caused to the private lives of victims of phone hacking, blagging and excessive surveillance.
News International's leading counsel, Michael Silverleaf QC, confirmed that its titles had unlawfully accessed the emails of the son of the serial killer Harold Shipman and the freelance journalist Tom Rowland. The scale of the payouts to victims – including £130,000 to the actor Jude Law and £50,000 to his former wife Sadie Frost – dominated the hearing before Mr Justice Vos. But Mark Lewis, the lawyer for the family of murdered teenager Milly Dowler, described the settlements as "just the tip of the iceberg".
Another solicitor, Tamsin Allen, who represents a number of the successful claimants, said that after continually being told by executives at the NOTW that they were wrong, that there had been no illegal practices, and that Mr Murdoch's News Group Newspapers intended to offer an aggressive defence, "we have now discovered a massive conspiracy involving criminal activity and a cover-up".
In the new settlements, announced in the High Court, a total of £645,000 was awarded to 15 hacking victims, with "substantial" damages awarded to three others. News International will be responsible for the legal costs, which are likely to be six-figure sums in most of the cases.
Confirmation that email hacking took place backs up the claim made last April by Sienna Miller that her email account had been accessed. An out-of-court settlement of £100,000 prevented further disclosures by the actress. The Independent has previously revealed that the Metropolitan Police's ongoing investigation into computer hacking, Operation Tuleta, has uncovered evidence that the former British intelligence officer Ian Hurst had his emails hacked as part of a NOTW commission. Eighteen other seized computers are being investigated by Tuleta officers for further evidence of illegal email access.
Mr Justice Vos rejected an appeal by Mr Silverleaf to cancel the trial scheduled for 13 February. NI's counsel said it was "not necessary for a civil trial of any kind", because it was "ready, willing and able" to offer "fair and generous" damages to the 10 individuals who have so far not reached an agreement. The unresolved cases include the actor Steve Coogan, football agent Sky Andrew, singer Charlotte Church, jockey Kieren Fallon and the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, Simon Hughes.
Indicating that News International would now engage in a final push to avoid any further revelations that could be revealed in court proceedings, Mr Silverleaf said: "If they [the remaining cases] are settled, then there can't be a trial."
But Hugh Tomlinson, QC, counsel for the victims, told the court: "It is anticipated there will be more phone- hacking cases to come."
Recent evaluations by the Scotland Yard team investigating the extent of phone hacking at the Sunday tabloid claim there are potentially 800 victims.
Following revelations last year in which News International was accused of destroying computers that may have held vital evidence during an office move, Mr Justice Vos yesterday ordered the company to search computers that he said may show executives deliberately tried to destroy evidence. The judge told NI's counsel he had seen evidence that raised "compelling questions about whether you concealed, told lies or actively sought to get off scot free". Although NI has denied the accusations of a corporate cover-up, the huge settlements were calculated on "the basis of the facts alleged".
Following the hearing, a number of the claimants offered further insight into what had happened to them:
* Christopher Shipman said he had been shown and provided with copies of emails dating from 2004 which had been intercepted by the detective Glenn Mulcaire, who was regularly commissioned by the NOTW.
* Lord Prescott claimed News Group Newspapers admitted some employees requested the methods used by Mulcaire.
* Jude Law said he was "truly appalled" by what the police and his lawyers had discovered. He said that no aspect of his private life was safe from intrusion – including the lives of his children and those who worked for him.