- Associated Press - Thursday, January 19, 2012

LONDON (AP) - Rupert Murdoch’s media empire apologized and agreed to cash payouts Thursday to 37 people _ including a movie star, a soccer player, a top British politician and the son of a serial killer _ who were harassed and phone-hacked by his tabloid press.

The four _ Jude Law, Ashley Cole, John Prescott and Chris Shipman _ were among three dozen victims who received financial damages from Murdoch’s British newspaper company for illegal eavesdropping and other intrusions, including email snooping.

Lawyers for the claimants said the settlements vindicated their accusation that senior Murdoch executives had long known about the scale of illegal phone hacking and had tried to cover it up.

News International, the parent company of Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers, said it did not admit that senior staff knew of the wrongdoing and tried to cover it up _ but it said that “for the purpose of reaching these settlements only, News Group Newspapers agreed that the damages to be paid to claimants should be assessed as if this was the case.”

Financial details of 15 of the payouts, totaling more than 640,000 pounds (about $1 million), were made public at a court hearing Thursday. The amounts generally ran into the tens of thousands of pounds _ although Law received 130,000 pounds (about $200,000), plus legal costs, to settle claims against the now-shuttered News of the World tabloid and its sister tabloid, The Sun.

Law was one of 60 people who have sued News Group Newspapers, claiming their mobile phone voicemails were hacked. Others whose settlements were announced Thursday at London’s High Court included former government ministers Chris Bryant and Tessa Jowell, rugby player Gavin Henson, Princess Diana’s former lover James Hewitt, singer Dannii Minogue and Sara Payne, the mother of a murdered girl.

It was the largest group of settlements announced yet in the long-running hacking scandal, which has shaken Murdoch’s global empire, spurred the resignations of several of his top executives and reverberated through Britain’s political, police and media elite.

Law, the star of “Sherlock Holmes” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” said he was “truly appalled” at the scale of surveillance and privacy invasion that his case had exposed.

“No aspect of my private life was safe from intrusion by News Group Newspapers, including the lives of my children and the people who work for me,” he said in a statement. “It was not just that my phone messages were listened to. News Group also paid people to watch me and my house for days at a time and to follow me and those close to me, both in this country and abroad.”

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 had misused Law’s private information _ although it didn’t go as far as to admit hacking by that paper.

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.”

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.

Murdoch closed the 168-year-old paper in July amid a wave of public revulsion over its hacking of the voicemails of missing 13-year-old Milly Dowler, who was later found murdered. More than a dozen ex-Murdoch employees have been arrested by police investigating phone hacking and bribery.

British politicians and police have also been ensnared in the scandal, which exposed the cozy relationship between senior officers, top lawmakers and Murdoch newspaper executives. A government-commissioned inquiry set up in the wake of the scandal is currently investigating the ethics of Britain’s media and its links to police and politicians.

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