* Judge says will hear four or five test cases
* Scandal casts shadow over News Corp's BSkyB pay-TV deal
* Judge says first test cases could be heard end of 2011
(Adds further court details, reaction)
By Georgina Prodhan and Kate Holton
LONDON, April 15 A public apology from Rupert
Murdoch's UK newspaper arm designed to contain an escalating
phone-hacking scandal looks to have failed after a judge said
civil cases against the firm could run into next year at least.
At a case-management conference called to decide how best to
manage a potential flood of lawsuits, the presiding judge said
on Friday he would hear four or five test cases, potentially
including the actress Sienna Miller, towards the year end.
So far, around 20 public figures who believe their voicemail
messages were intercepted by journalists at the popular News of
the World tabloid are suing News International, the UK newspaper
arm of News Corp (NWSA.O).
But many more are expected to come forward after the group
apologised to eight victims last week and said it would set up a
Potential claimants will have to weigh up whether to accept
a pay off or go to court and run the risk of large legal bills
and potentially embarrassing information being made public.
Just last week News Corp's deputy chief operating officer
James Murdoch, the son of the company patriarch, said the
company had managed to "put this problem into a box" but Judge
Geoffrey Vos made clear that was not the case.
"The show ain't over. That's pretty obvious," Vos told a
London courtroom, packed with teams of lawyers and reporters.
An investigation into newsgathering practices at the News of
the World has so far touched celebrities, government ministers,
sports stars and British Prime Minister David Cameron,
repeatedly making headline news in rival publications.
Sienna Miller's lawyer said in court that her former partner
the actor Jude Law may also start proceedings against the paper.
The scandal has also clouded a planned deal by parent
company News Corp (NWSA.O) for a $14 billion buyout of British
pay-TV group BSkyB BSY.L, with critics saying the government
should put it on hold until the hacking investigation is over.
Vos proposed trying as test cases those brought by Miller,
sports agent Skylet Andrew, ex-sports pundit Andy Gray and
interior designer Kelly Hoppen because they encompassed a wide
range of issues and were closest to being ready for trial.
"It's hard to imagine there would be generic questions that
would not be raised by those cases," Vos said. They could be
ready for trial by the end of the year or early next, he said.
Police are also carrying out a criminal investigation. They
have arrested three senior News of the World journalists so far
this year, including one on Thursday. [ID:nLDE73D0YD]
"It's worth noting that the judges in this case so far have
been absolutely determined to get to the bottom of this," media
consultant Steve Hewlett told Reuters.
"And now we have police poring over new information and in
the background we have parliamentary select committees who are
seething as they believe they were also seriously misled."
News International's News of the World sells almost 3
million copies every Sunday -- more than any of its rivals --
fuelled by front-page tales of celebrity scandal.
But a week ago the company admitted that some of those
stories may have come from hacking private phone messages and it
accepted liability for the first time. News International
apologised to eight people including Miller and British
politician Tessa Jowell who are suing the company.
A senior media lawyer who asked not to be named told Reuters
the case would continue to play out in the press as both the
criminal investigation and civil cases rage on.
"News International are hoping to neutralise this by
settling with people," he said. "But as long as there are
sufficient claimants who haven't been bought off, then it will
continue and litigation is a slow process.
"This is personal and about the principle."
George Galloway, a left-wing politician who believes he was
targeted, said he was worried the company would force people to
accept compensation rather than run the risk of big legal bills.
"I'm concerned about what's going on in the background,
which is that they're trying to prevent the truth from coming
out by offering everybody lots of money," he said.
For years, News International maintained that phone hacking
at the tabloid was limited to a few rogue individuals, a stance
seen as a bid to protect the reputations of those at the top.
Its royal editor and a private investigator were jailed in
2007 for hacking into voicemail messages of aides to Britain's
royal family. Editor Andy Coulson resigned, saying he took
ultimate responsibility but had not known about the practice.
Coulson later became the prime minister's spokesman, but
resigned from that position in January as a new police
investigation gathered steam.
The case has also clouded the BSkyB deal, which critics fear
would increase News Corp's influence over the British media. The
government is expected to approve it in the coming weeks.
(Writing by Georgina Prodhan and Kate Holton; Editing by
Chris Wickham and Elizabeth Fullerton)