LONDON - Rupert Murdoch's British newspaper company on Thursday agreed to pay damages to 36 high-profile victims of tabloid phone-hacking, including actor Jude Law, soccer player Ashley Cole and former British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.
In the 15 settlements whose financial terms were made public, amounts generally ran into the tens of thousands of pounds (dollars) — although Law received 130,000 pounds (about $200,000) to settle claims against the now-shuttered News of the World tabloid and its sister paper, The Sun.
News Group Newspapers admitted that 16 articles about Law published in the News of the World between 2003 and 2006 had been obtained by phone hacking, and that the actor had also been placed under "repeated and sustained physical surveillance." The company also admitted that articles in The Sun tabloid misused Law's private information — although it didn't go so far as to admit hacking.
In a statement, Law said Murdoch's tabloids had been "prepared to do anything to sell their newspapers and to make money, irrespective of the impact it had on people's lives."
"I changed my phones, I had my house swept for bugs but still the information kept being published," Law said. "I started to become distrustful of people close to me."
"For me this case was never about money. It was about standing up for myself and finding out what had happened. I owed it to my friends and family as well as myself to do this."
Law was one of 60 people who have sued News Group Newspapers, claiming their mobile phone voicemails were hacked. Other cases whose settlement was announced at London's High Court on Thursday include claims by former government ministers Chris Bryant and Tessa Jowell, rugby player Gavin Henson and Sara Payne, the mother of a murdered girl.
Law's ex-wife and actress Sadie Frost received 50,000 pounds (about $77,000) in damages plus legal costs for phone hacking and deceit by the News of the World. Bryant received 30,000 pounds (about $46,000) in damages plus costs, while Prescott — a prominent member of the Labour Party — accepted 40,000 pounds (about $62,000).
After each statement, News Group lawyer Michael Silverleaf stood to express the news company's "sincere apologies" for the damage and distress its illegal activity had caused.
The claimants described feeling mistrust, fear and paranoia as phone messages went missing, journalists knew their movements in advance or private information appeared in the media.
Frost said the paper's activity caused her and Law to suspect one another. Henson said he accused the family of his then-wife, singer Charlotte Church, of leaking stories to the press.
Other claimants included Guy Pelly, a friend of Prince William, who was awarded 40,000 pounds (about $62,000), and Tom Rowland, a journalist who wrote for one of Murdoch's own newspapers, the Sunday Times. He received 25,000 pounds ($39,000) after News Group admitted hacking his phone.
In some cases the company admitted hacking into emails, as well as telephone voice mails. Christopher Shipman, son of serial killer Harold Shipman, had emails containing sensitive legal and medical information intercepted by the News of the Word. He was awarded "substantial" undisclosed damages.
The slew of settlements is one consequence of the revelations of phone-hacking and other illegal tactics at the News of the World, where journalists routinely intercepted voicemails of those in the public eye in a relentless search for scoops.
The wide-ranging scandal prompted Murdoch to close the 168-year-old paper in July, and several of his senior lieutenants have since lost their jobs.
British politicians and police have also been ensnared in the scandal, which exposed the cozy relationship between senior officers, top lawmakers, and newspaper executives at Murdoch's media empire. A government-commissioned inquiry set up in the wake of the scandal is currently investigating the ethics of Britain's media — and the nature of its links to police and politicians.
The settlements announced Thursday amount to more than half of the phone-hacking lawsuits facing Murdoch's company, but the number of victims is estimated in the hundreds. Mark Lewis, a lawyer for many of the phone hacking victims, said in an email that the fight against Murdoch wasn't over.
"While congratulations are due to those (lawyers) and clients who have settled their cases, it is important that we don't get carried away into thinking that the war is over," Lewis said. "Fewer than 1 percent of the people who were hacked have settled their cases. There are many more cases in the pipeline. ... This is too early to celebrate, we're not even at the end of the beginning."
Many victims had earlier settled with the company, including actress Sienna Miller and the parents of murdered teenager Milly Dowler, who were awarded 2 million pounds (about $3.1 million) in compensation.
Ten further cases are due to go to court next month, though lawyers said more settlements are likely.