News Corp. Pushes Hacking Settlements as Trial Nears

Effort an Attempt to Avoid Court-Ordered Awards That Set Precedent

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News Corp.'s British newspaper unit is close to settling at least 10 lawsuits by politicians, athletes and other prominent victims of phone hacking before the first civil trial over the scandal starts next month.

Labour Party lawmaker Chris Bryant and celebrity lawyer Graham Shear, whose voicemails were hacked to get stories for News Corp.'s News of the World tabloid, are among those near settlements, according to a document obtained by Bloomberg News. Their lawsuits were joined with four other "test cases" for a three-week trial scheduled to begin Feb. 13 in London.

"Some of the criticism of News Corp.'s conduct to date has been about their use of confidential settlements in the past to prevent facts coming into the public domain, so when it comes to settling any of these test cases, they should tread carefully," said Mark Watts, a data-privacy lawyer at Bristows in London.

If settlements are reached, about two dozen backup cases are available, though several of those are also close to settling, including suits filed by ex-lawmaker George Galloway and former U.K. Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, according to the document.

The trial is intended to give guidance on damages for 70 current cases, as well as future lawsuits and out-of -court settlements. The Metropolitan Police Service has said about 800 people may have been targeted by the News of the World.

Judge Geoffrey Vos created the test -case procedure in May, two months before News Corp. closed the 168-year-old News of the World and dropped its 7.8 billion-pound ($12.1 billion) bid for full control of British Sky Broadcasting Group to tamp down the uproar over the five-year scandal.

"They're trying to avoid the judge making awards that will set a dangerous precedent," Niri Shan, a media lawyer at Taylor Wessing in London, said of the settlement talks. "They're buying off the risk of that , and it's not unheard of for cases to settle at the last minute -- even at the door of the court."

Victims who want to go to trial may be discouraged from doing so by a U.K. law that could force them to pay News International's court costs if they decline a settlement offer and then fail to beat that amount in a verdict, Mr. Shan said.

The highest-profile victims in the trial are actor Jude Law and sports agent Sky Andrew, who aren't close to settling, according to the document, which shows the status of the test cases and was given to Mr. Vos at a hearing last month. Mr. Andrew was one of the first victims to sue the News Corp. unit and seek a court order forcing police to turn over evidence for his case.

Daisy Dunlop, a spokeswoman for News International, declined to comment on the settlement talks.

London police, who failed to uncover the extent of the scandal in 2006, today arrested a 17th person as part of a probe opened last year. Police did not identify the person beyond describing her as a 47-year-old woman, but The Guardian and other news organizations reported that she is "understood" to be the former personal assistant to Rebekah Brooks, former CEO of News International.

Ms. Brooks and former News of the World editor Andy Coulson were arrested in July and are now free on bail.

Tamsin Allen, the lawyer for Mr. Bryant and Mr. Prescott, confirmed that settlement talks are under way. She said the trial is still important because it "could set a tariff for compensation payments which settlements do not, as they are just voluntary."

Mr. Shear, the celebrity lawyer, didn't return a call for comment. Other attorneys involved didn't immediately return calls seeking comment.

News Corp.'s settlements with victims have varied widely until now, from 20,000 pounds for sports commentator Andy Gray to 3 million pounds for the family of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, whose phone was hacked in 2002, when she was still missing, to get stories about her disappearance.

-- Bloomberg News --

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