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.
In the 10 days since News International issued a blanket public apology for the News of the World’s phone-hacking activities and offered to compensate eight individual litigants whose claims it recognizes, there have been several developments which suggest that the scandal may prove hard to contain.
This week, British Prime Minister David Cameron, who had previously been wary of making any comment about the phone-hacking scandal so long as former News of the World editor Andy Coulson was working as his official spokesman—Coulson resigned in January—declared that the current criminal investigation should be vigorously pursued. Significantly, however, he chose to say this during an interview for Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News satellite channel, thus helping to isolate the News of the World’s problems from the rest of Murdoch’s media interests.
“Let me be clear: phone hacking is wrong, phone hacking is illegal, and the police and the prosecuting authorities should follow the evidence wherever it goes without fear or favor,” Cameron said.
Opposition leader Ed Miliband has gone further than Cameron—and risked the ire of Murdoch—by calling for a public inquiry into phone hacking by newspapers that would come after the conclusion of the police investigation and any prosecutions that might ensue from it.
By a happy coincidence, on the same day that the apology was announced, the New Statesman, a left-wing weekly, published the transcript of a conversation between actor Hugh Grant and a former News of the World journalist, Paul McMullan, who had already emerged as a whistleblower. Grant—who conducted the interview as a favor to his ex-girlfriend Jemima Khan, who was guest editor of the magazine—secretly taped the conversation with a microphone concealed in a pen. During their talk, McMullan repeated what he’d previously told a parliamentary committee, that Coulson, who has consistently denied any knowledge of phone hacking, “knew all about it and regularly ordered it” because he wanted insurance against being sued for defamation by celebrities. McMullan added: “There are people who actually have tapes and transcripts they did for Andy Coulson.”
Last week, the Metropolitan Police arrested a third News of the World journalist, James Weatherup, who had been assistant editor of the paper from 2004 to 2006 when the paper was paying Glenn Mulcaire to hack into the voicemail of celebrities. Presumably, his name came to police attention either from Mulcaire’s confiscated records or from searching through the thousands of emails disclosed by News International, though that seems less likely since those emails were disclosed only recently. Weatherup’s name had never before been mentioned in relation to phone hacking, and his arrest is thought to be especially significant because he was closer to Coulson than Clive Goodman and therefore his arrest might suggest that the net is closing on Coulson as well. As soon as Weatherup was arrested, News of the World executives cleared his desk and confiscated his computer under the watchful eye of News International’s in-house lawyers.
At the end of last week, the judge who ordered News International to disclose its email cache presided over a case-management hearing at which he recommended that four test cases—those of actress Sienna Miller, her stepmother Kelly Hoppen, soccer agent Sky Andrew, and TV presenter Andy Gray—should be heard by February 2012 at the latest.
Michael Silverleaf, QC, a senior barrister representing News International, revealed that the company had offered Sienna Miller £100,000 in damages to settle her claim, arguing that this was the most she could expect to win at trial. However, Miller’s lawyers are refusing to settle until they find out in detail just how extensive the hacking of her phone was. (In a separate development, the actor Jude Law, Miller’s former partner, was said to be on the verge of issuing his own legal proceedings against News International.)
The barrister representing Miller, Hugh Tomlinson, QC, suggested that the actress may have had her email hacked into as recently as 2008. Although by then the Mulcaire records had already been confiscated by police, her email password (which was the same as the password on her mobile phone) might still have been known to a News of the World journalist. “The hacking in 2008 is separate from the phone records,” Tomlinson told the court. “We have linked that to the Mulcaire archive because she used the same password on her mobile phone and on her email and that was recorded on Mr. Mulcaire’s notes. We infer that that password was used to hack her email.” In essence, this means that Miller may have two separate claims against News International.
Perhaps the most significant declaration to come out of the hearing was made by the barrister representing the Metropolitan Police. “Since the admissions [by News International] last Friday, the Metropolitan Police has been flooded with enquiries,” said Jason Beer, QC. “The number of people beating a path to the Met’s door has increased very substantially.” The Metropolitan Police had previously said that they had found 91 PIN numbers in Mulcaire’s possession, but that the number of likely victims of phone hacking was far less than that. Beer told the hearing that 40 detectives are combing through 9,200 pages of documents obtained from Mulcaire and that the number of victims is “substantially” higher than 91. This is partly because PIN numbers do not tell the whole story. Also of interest to police are direct dial numbers (DDNs), which are the numbers used to access voicemail. “There are, within the Mulcaire archive, records of DDNs where, on the face of it, there is no good reason for these to appear,” Beer explained. “That is strongly indicative of interception.”
As one lawyer attacking for the litigants said in an anonymous briefing: “News Group has suffered a devastating blow today to its latest strategy to close down the phone-hacking litigation. The judge entirely rejected its contention that its narrow ‘admissions’ were sufficient to bring all the liability issues in the nine leading cases to an end and ordered a trial of the generic issues, including whether it entered into a conspiracy with Glenn Mulcaire to hack voicemails.”