LONDON (Reuters) - A further 15 politicians, sportsmen and celebrities reached settlements with the British newspaper arm of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp on Wednesday over a phone hacking scandal that has rocked his global media empire.
The development increases the chances that the publisher may yet avoid further embarrassing details of its conduct from being publicly aired in court - although at least one of the claimants, Charlotte Church, has not yet reached a deal.
A civil trial to establish general principles of how hacking victims should be compensated is due to start next week, provided that the remaining claimants do not settle.
Among those who settled on Wednesday were comedian Steve Coogan, lawmaker Simon Hughes and ex-soccer player Paul Gascoigne, the Press Association reported.
The civil process was begun a year ago to deal with an expected avalanche of hundreds of claimants, and the announcement of the settlements came during a hearing to prepare for the long-awaited civil court trial.
The agreed settlements ranged from 40,000 pounds to 75,000 pounds ($119,000), the Press Association reported.
Last month, 37 legal claims against NGN, publisher of some of News International's titles, were settled. News International said at the time this was not an admission that management had known about the practice or tried to cover it up.
News International had claimed for years that the hacking of voicemails to generate stories for the News of the World tabloid, which was shut down last summer, was the work of a single "rogue" reporter who went to jail for the crime in 2007.
However, it finally admitted the problem was widespread amid a wave of evidence, sparking a scandal that has rocked the company, the British press, police and the political establishment.
Lawmaker Hughes called for anyone involved in criminal activity at the News of the World to be charged and all those who allowed a large company to behave in such a way to be held to account.
"It was criminal behavior on an industrial scale," he said in a statement.
Three criminal investigations are currently underway while a judge-led inquiry into Britain's press ethics sits most days, bringing yet more attention to the conduct of the media as it considers new regulations.
The long-running saga blew up last July when it emerged that the voicemail of missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler, later found murdered, had been hacked into by the News of the World.
Amid public disgust, Murdoch shut down the 168-year-old Sunday tabloid and pulled its plan to take full control of Britain's highly profitable satellite broadcaster BSkyB.
The scandal has also forced the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman, a former News of the World editor, and seen the departure of a number of News International executives and senior police officers accused of failing to properly investigate the affair. ($1 = 0.6300 British pounds)
(Reporting by Avril Ormsby, Editing by Mark Potter)