LONDON — A lawyer for Rupert Murdoch's British newspapers said Tuesday that phone hacking was wrong and shameful, but insisted the huge criminal investigation it sparked proves journalists are not above the law.
Rhodri Davies told a judge-led inquiry into British media practices that Murdoch's News International apologized "unreservedly" for eavesdropping on cell phone voice mail messages of celebrities, politicians and crime victims.
He said the hacking "was wrong, it was shameful and it should never have happened."
"News International intends to ensure that what happened at the News of the World will not happen again and that fair compensation will be paid to those who suffered from it," Davies said.
For years Murdoch executives insisted that hacking was limited to private investigator Glenn Mulcaire and reporter Clive Goodman, who were both jailed in 2007 for eavesdropping on the phones of royal aides.
Davies said it clearly went much wider, but insisted that illegal activity had been curtailed – if not stopped – after the two men were caught. Police believe illegal voicemail interception continued until at least 2009.
Davies said that "lessons were learned when Mr. Goodman and Mr. Mulcaire went to jail."
He said that if phone hacking did continue after 2007, it was not "the thriving cottage industry which existed beforehand."
He also questioned a claim by the inquiry's lawyer about the scale of the illegal eavesdropping.
Inquiry counsel Robert Jay said Monday that five journalists had asked investigator Mulcaire to carry out 2,266 tasks.
Davies said News International wanted those figures checked.
He said that "2,266 taskings is 2,266 too many, five journalists commissioning them from the News of the World is five too many ... but nonetheless we think it is necessary to be accurate as far as possible."
Davies disputed a claim by actor Jude Law that his phone was hacked by the News of the World's sister paper, The Sun. Davies said he could not go into detail because of confidentiality issues.
Murdoch shut down the 168-year-old News of the World in July as the scale of phone hacking became clear. Several senior executives at his News Corp. have resigned over the scandal, which has rattled Britain's political, police and media establishments.
More than a dozen journalists have been arrested and questioned about phone hacking and police bribery, and News Corp. faces dozens of lawsuits from alleged victims.
The inquiry, led by judge Brian Leveson, is examining media ethics and could suggest a new regulatory regime for the press.
Dozens of prominent people who accuse the press of intrusion are lined up to participate including actor Hugh Grant, Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling, actress Sienna Miller and former Formula One boss Max Mosley.
News International and its rival media groups are all eager to avoid new restrictions, arguing that the current form of self-regulation through the Press Complaints Commission can be strengthened.
"Our plea is for the press not to be over-regulated," Davies said. "It is not for it to be above the law."
Online: The Leveson Inquiry: http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/
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