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10 April 2011updated 17 Jan 2012 6:01am

Beyond the News of the World apology

What does News International's mea culpa mean for Metgate?

By David Allen Green

What is the significance of today’s apology by the News of the World in respect of the voicemail-hacking scandal?

In legal terms, it isn’t that important. None of the claimants in the civil actions have agreed to settle their claims on this basis. It also does not cover all the claims outstanding. No apology seems to have been accepted, nor any compensation paid.

In strict terms, the apology is nothing other than a gesture: a tactical manoeuvre in a far wider complex of legal problems which News International (and possibly other publishers) are trying to contain and close down.

That said, it is a clever move. Some claimants may accept settlement on this basis. If so, their claims are brought to an end and they receive compensation. It may be that such a settlement includes non-disclosure and similar provisions. Claimants who press on, notwithstanding the offer of settlement and the admission of civil liability, will do so at the risk of additional legal costs: English courts tend to penalise with adverse costs awards those parties which go on to trial when the other side has already conceded defeat.

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It is also a clever move in terms of public relations: it is part of the common “we put our hands up” and “let’s just now draw a line” rhetorical approach often used by the insincere and culpable.

But the apology will not help News International much more than that.

The main legal problem they have is not from the civil claims of individual victims of the phone hacking activity but potential criminal prosecutions against individuals and, possibly, against News International as a corporation. The apology will have no legal or (it seems) practical effect on closing down the re-opened police investigation.

The further problem facing News International is the various parliamentary and press investigations into the irregular relationship it had with the Metropolitan police.

There still appears no good reason why the original police inquiry was narrowed so quickly. The explanation could be knavery or foolery, but there is a public interest in finding out what curtailed the original investigation.

It may well be that we will never find out – that this current crisis is defused before any revelations are made.
One cannot have any doubt that the lawyers for anyone who did act wrongly are doing everything they can to put the problem in a box and tie it up.
The question is whether the parliamentary and press investigations can get to the bottom of the botched police investigation first. Whoever wins that race, today’s apology is strictly irrelevant.

And there is the broader problem of how far the phonehacking went beyond News International.

Was it prevalent on an industrial scale?

Were they all at it?

Who knows?

Today’s apology does not tell us which other parties were involved in this criminal activity. But it does tell us that the old fiction of one rogue reporter can no longer be sustained.

And, in turn, that tells us that however well the “fixers” and “problem solvers” believe they have “dealt with” a problem, as those at News International undoubtedly believed they had done before the current storm, it is possible — sometimes — that parliament, the courts and a free press can sometimes work together to expose unlawful and perhaps corrupt conduct.

Today’s apology would simply not have occurred without the combined efforts of MPs, lawyers, and certain journalists; and, perhaps, that is its main significance.