The story so far: Clive Goodman, a journalist for Rupert Murdoch’s English tabloid, the News of the World, was sent to prison in 2006, along with a private detective, Glenn Mulcaire, for hacking into the voicemail messages of Prince William and Prince Henry. News International, the U.K. newspaper-owning subsidiary of Murdoch’s News Corporation, has consistently claimed that the phone-hacking was confined to a single rogue reporter, but evidence uncovered by the Guardian and New York Times has suggested otherwise.
LONDON—Despite now being overshadowed by a wider debate about privacy, the U.K. phone-hacking scandal continues to offer new developments with each passing week.
The latest among these concerns not phone hacking itself but the question of whether London’s Metropolitan Police effectively colluded in a News International cover-up by misleading celebrities about the extent of phone hacking. Former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott was joined by two men targeted because of their homosexuality—MP Chris Bryant and former Metropolitan Police Deputy Assistant Commissioner Brian Paddick—in going to court to seek declarations that the police "failed to inform them they were victims," failed to respond adequately to their requests for information, and failed to carry out an effective investigation in the early days of the scandal in 2006 and 2007. As a result of these failures, the claimants believe, the Met in effect violated their right to privacy under the U.K. Human Rights Act.
Mr Justice Foskett, a judge in the High Court, ruled in favor of Prescott, Bryant, and Paddick earlier this week. But Foskett's decision is procedural, and does not mean that he accepts their arguments—merely that he finds such arguments are not "unarguable" and believes they should be heard at a trial.
News International can claim one tactical victory in the last two weeks, namely the settlement of a claim by the actress Sienna Miller for a mere £100,000. Miller had been expected to dig in her heels and insist on taking her claim further, but her barrister, Hugh Tomlinson QC, said in court that "the crucial point in our view is to know the extent of the wrongdoing" rather than win damages. He explained that Miller had settled "precisely because all her claims have been admitted . . . What she wants is to have is disclosure and proper answers from the News of the World as to what took place so she can have effective non-monetary relief and can be properly compensated."
News International barrister Michael Silverleaf QC begged to differ. “What she wants is a public inquiry that goes beyond what the remedy in civil law provides,” he said in reply.
Apparently, Miller was constrained because of the amount she had requested when she and her solicitors had filled in her initial claim form. Pursuing civil litigation on a point of principle so as to watch the other side squirm is discouraged in English law. The defendant is entitled to make what is called a "Part 36 offer." If the plaintiff rejects this, then wins less at trial than the amount that was offered, the plaintiff is responsible for paying the larger proportion of the legal costs, which is the real killer element in court proceedings. Faced with this prospect, Miller opted to settle. Former MP George Galloway, on the other hand, has said that he would not settle his claim at any cost, because he wants to take News International to a full trial. But it remains to be seen whether he will he be so courageous (or foolhardy) if confronted with a Part 36 offer.
Meanwhile, new claimants are still coming forward to initiate proceedings. James Hewitt, the ex-army officer who was a lover of Princess Diana, has been shown evidence by the police that he was targeted by Glenn Mulcaire, and has hired the same firm that represented Miller. The actor Hugh Grant is also said to be considering legal action against the News of the World after the police showed him evidence that Mulcaire had his personal information, including the voicemail PIN numbers of his friends and family as well as phone numbers and bank details. "We don't need them," he said, referring to tabloid newspapers, in a radio interview, "we don't want them, and the sooner they go out of business the better."
But it isn’t just famous people and their families and entourages who were victims of the News of the World’s phone-hacking habit. Journalists for rival papers were also deemed to be appropriate targets. Dennis Rice, who was investigations editor of the Mail on Sunday at the time when Mulcaire was at his most active, believes that he and several of his colleagues had their phones hacked. Rice, his wife, and his sister have each lodged claims in the high court. In an ironic twist, even TV presenter Ulrika Jonsson, who was recruited as a News of the World columnist by the paper’s former editor Andy Coulson and contributed columns between 2003 and 2007, is set to sue the paper over phone hacking.
At the latest pre-trial hearing for the 26 civil claims before another judge, Mr Justice Vos, lawyers for the Metropolitan Police updated the number of Mulcaire’s likely victims. Previously the figure had stood at 91, but now the police have said that Mulcaire recorded 400 unique voicemail numbers, which permit direct dialing into voicemail, and 149 voicemail PIN codes.
Perhaps the most dangerous development as far as News International is concerned is the declaration by Mr Justice Vos that, in seeking to determine the level of damages for five claimants whose cases will be heard in the first wave, he will examine the question of whether phone hacking was sanctioned or perhaps even connived at by a senior News International executive. He noted that in the case of the actor Jude Law as many as 16 News of the World articles might have arisen as a result of phone hacking and that a "very senior executive" might have been implicated.
"If it was established that the very senior executive was indeed involved," said Law’s barrister, Hugh Tomlinson QC, "that may be an important or decisive factor [in assessing damages]." Mr Justice Vos seemed to agree. "It is one thing for a journalist to say I am desperate to get a story," he said, "and another for a chief executive to say I want get greater profits by obtaining stories by using illegal means."
From its original claim that a single rogue journalist was responsible for all phone hacking at the News of the World, News International has conceded, through its lawyer Silverleaf, that "yes, individual journalists, or maybe groups of journalists, were involved, but there was no managerial involvement." News Corp. must be hoping that he is not forced to eat those words.