The News Of The World phone-hacking scandal — described as a “conspiracy” by the London High Court judge assessing some test cases — worsens by the week after more weekend disclosures.

And the delay in the UK government’s approval of News Corp’s massive BSkyB bid has been explained with the news that the government has received an unprecedented 40,000 submissions on the deal. These need to be assessed, hence the delayed approval, which was originally due at the end of last month.

According to the weekend reports in the London media, the number of people who had their phones hacked continues to escalate, thanks to now-serious investigating by the Metropolitan Police and not the once-over-lightly effort of a few years ago by police who were wined and dined by executives at some of Murdoch’s newspapers.

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Legal representatives for the police told a London High Court hearing that hundreds of people may have had their phones hacked. At last count, 149 mobile phone PIN numbers had been identified in the private papers of convicted hacker and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire. That compares to the last estimate of 91 from the police given in a court hearing in April.

But the court on Friday was told that the investigation had found about 400 unique voicemail numbers, which are also used to access message banks on mobile phones.

In its so-called apology more than a month ago, News International indicated there were eight cases where the group was prepared to negotiate settlements. One of those, actress Sienna Miller took a £100,000 settlement earlier this month from News Group Newspapers. News has allocated $A20 million to settling these and other cases.

Those eight are in addition to 6-8  said to have been paid money privately several years ago by News International to try to hush up the scandal.

As well, actor Jude Law is now suing the News Of The World for a breach of privacy that flowed from the the hacking scandal.

On Friday, Law’s case joined the list of test cases that will be tried next year, along with that of Labour MP Chris Bryant, a former Europe minister.

Justice Vos, the judge assigned to take charge of all the hacking claims, said they would be added to three other test cases that were chosen last month —  agent Sky Andrew, interior designer Kelly Hoppen and football pundit Andy Gray.

According to The Guardian, Mr Justice Vos was reported as saying on Friday that said the level of damages awarded would be determined in part by who at News Group ordered Mulcaire to hack into voicemail messages.

“The question of exemplary damages is determined by profit,” Vos said.

“It’s one thing for a journalist to say ‘I’m desperate to get a story’. It’s another thing for the chief executive of a company to say ‘I’m desperate to make more money by getting stories in this evil way’.

“Was there a conspiracy between Mulcaire and News Group Newspapers to intercept voicemail messages? The answer is yes, there was. Was it an agreement between the board of directors of NGN? … I will have to determine the answer.”

These questions raised by the judge go to the heart of the whole story. These damage assessments will be separate to any charges that might be levied by the police.

Yesterday the case widened again, this time with a potentially new and damaging claim  made by another London journalist.

The Guardian reported: “A leading tabloid journalist has joined those suing the News of the World for allegedly hacking into voicemails, reviving claims that the Rupert Murdoch-owned paper has been spying on its rivals to steal their stories.

“According to the high court registry, Fleet Street veteran Dennis Rice has issued proceedings against the NoW and its private investigator Glenn Mulcaire. Rice, who is now freelance, was the investigations editor at the Mail on Sunday (MoS) when Mulcaire was at the peak of his activity between 2005 and 2006.

“A source familiar with Mulcaire’s activities claims that, acting on orders from an NoW editorial executive, he intercepted voicemail messages from Rice and half a dozen other journalists at the MoS. They say that among other targets, the paper was keen to steal stories that Rice was filing from Germany, where England were playing in the World Cup in the summer of 2006, generating tabloid interest in the players’ wives and girlfriends.

“The same source said that by hacking into voicemails, Mulcaire obtained a password which would have allowed him to access the MoS internal computer system, potentially disclosing all of its email traffic and every story awaiting publication.”

“Rice himself was at the centre of a controversy 12 years ago, when he was deputy news editor of the Sunday Mirror. According to allegations made in the High Court in August 1999, Rice had been contacted by Neville Thurlbeck of the NoW, who had asked to meet him in a south London pub. Rice had been suspicious and gone to the meeting with a concealed tape recorder. He allegedly captured on tape Thurlbeck offering him a weekly payment of £5000 for the Sunday Mirror’s news list, plus a bonus of £3000 for any story from the list which made a front-page NoW splash. Rice rejected the offer and took the recording to his editor.”

Thurlbeck is chief reporter of the News Of The World journalists charged by police in connection with the hacking scandal.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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