Hacking’s victims fight back

May 28, 2024
Rupert Murdoch speaks to the media in London. July 2011.

Fresh revelations suggest that the scandalous behaviour at London-based Murdoch newspapers was wider and deeper than previously believed.

In June 2010 Rupert Murdoch’s London tabloid, the News of the World, reported that Liberal Democrat MP Chris Huhne was engaged in an extramarital affair. It was a run-of-the-mill but potentially damaging story of a secret romance that would have battled to meet any public-interest test.

Why Huhne, some readers might have wondered, and why then? What was newsworthy about the private behaviour of a newly appointed minister in the Conservative-led coalition government — a man “not famous enough,” according to the reporter involved, for the story to run when it had first been unearthed a year earlier? No evidence was put forward that the affair was affecting Huhne’s performance as an MP. He hadn’t misused public funds or abused his parliamentary position. None of the people directly involved had gone public.

The key to this mystery lies six months earlier, in January, when Huhne called for a judicial inquiry into the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World. A Guardian report had recently exposed how the Murdoch paper had hired four private investigators who then used illegal methods to seek out embarrassing information about celebrities and other public figures.

The News of the World’s editor at the time of the hacking was Andy Coulson, who was now working for soon-to-be-prime-minister David Cameron. “Very damaging for Andy,” wrote Fred Michel, a lobbyist for Murdoch’s News Group, to the paper’s latest editor, Colin Myler. “We need to get Chris Huhne.” “Totally,” replied Myler.

How they “got” him was by publishing the story of his affair. In essence, the Murdoch press’s response to an accusation of hacking was to hack the accuser and eventually unearth his affair. “To do this,” wrote journalist Nick Davies earlier this month in the highly regarded British magazine Prospect, “the paper hired three private investigators who specialised in using unlawful methods to get access to confidential information and paid £2600 to a former police officer, Derek Webb, who ran undercover surveillance on Huhne for a total of eleven days that June.”

What made Huhne’s misdeeds more newsworthy than other MPs’ peccadilloes was that he was seen as an enemy, and therefore deserving of public humiliation.

A decade after the News of the World revealed his affair, Huhne came into receipt of information about how the paper had pried into his private life and decided to sue. He was successful, and in December last year, in a confidential settlement, he accepted a six-figure sum from News.

The story of the News of the World’s attack on Huhne is part of a blizzard of new information and allegations about News’s hacking, surveillance and cover-ups revealed by Davies in Prospect this month.

It was Davies who wrote the 2010 Guardian story that prompted Huhne’s call for an inquiry. The article, and Huhne’s response, posed an obvious threat to News’s interests by showing that the hacking was much more widespread than had been thought.

Four years earlier, News of the World reporter Clive Goodman and private detective Glenn Mulcaire had been arrested for hacking the phones of princes William and Harry. They had pleaded guilty, apologised and been sent to prison. The company’s public position was that the hacking was entirely the work of a single rogue reporter.

News bought the silence of both convicted men by promising them jobs after their incarceration. But when the paper reneged by firing Goodman after he went to jail, he threatened to reveal all. News then paid him a lump sum of £243,000 — quite an amount for a rogue reporter.

The Murdoch empire was determined to contain any fallout from the convictions. By the end of the decade, though — and despite the reluctance of politicians, the police, and most of the media to pursue the scandal — keeping a lid on it was becoming more difficult. Then, in July 2011, the Guardian published another Nick Davies story, this time reporting that the News of the World had hacked the phone of a young kidnapping victim, Milly Dowler. The outcry was immediate, widespread and intense.

Within weeks, an extensive advertising boycott had forced the paper — more than a century old — to close, and Rupert and James Murdoch had been summoned to appear before a parliamentary committee. Politicians of all persuasions denounced the company’s behaviour.

The renewed scandal came at a particularly bad moment for Murdoch. Soon after Cameron was elected prime minister, News had launched a bid to increase its stake in the satellite broadcaster BSkyB from 39 per cent to 100 per cent. The government seemed set to approve the bid. But once the Milly Dowler scandal blew up all three of the biggest parties — Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat — opposed the move in parliament and News Group withdrew. The parliamentary inquiry finished with a bang by concluding (along party lines) that Rupert Murdoch was not fit to exercise stewardship over a major international company.

Under pressure, Cameron appointed judge Brian Leveson to chair a wide-ranging committee of inquiry. Leveson’s inquiry sat for nine months, heard from 337 witnesses and received statements from 300 others. A year after his hearings began in November 2011 Leveson issued a four-volume report running to almost 2000 pages. As he himself said, it was “the most public and the most concentrated look at the press” Britain had ever seen.

Police launched a massive criminal trial. Of the eight defendants, the two most prominent were senior News Group executive Rebekah Brooks and editor-turned-adviser Andy Coulson. The trial ended in June 2014 with Coulson going to prison, six other defendants having pleaded guilty, and Brookes and one other defendant acquitted.

This public climax was followed by several much lower-profile criminal cases. Essentially, though, “normality” had returned. Cameron rejected Leveson’s calls for the press to be accountable to a statutory authority and the scheduled second part of the inquiry — to look in detail at News Group and its web of contacts — never eventuated. On the surface, Murdoch had escaped with only temporary embarrassment.

But while the scandal barely figured in subsequent coverage, the action continued beyond public view. In Prospect, Nick Davies reveals that around 1600 people claiming to be victims of phone-hacking (including Hugh Grant and the Duke of Sussex) have brought actions against News Group — at a cost to the company, so far, of around £1.2 billion in payouts. Nearly all these cases were settled with confidential payouts. Almost none of them received prominent coverage in the media. News Group has been able to limit the reputational damage, but at a huge financial cost.

Given the industrial scale of the law-breaking (their principal private investigator/phone hacker Mulcaire alone had targeted 6349 people), the company didn’t have much choice. But it is now paying a high price for activities conceived when Murdoch’s British tabloids were still highly profitable. The circulation of the Sun, the cash-cow that paid for the company’s expansion in the 1980s, had fallen from close to four million in 1990 to less than 1.2 million in 2020, when it instructed the Audit Bureau of Circulation that its sales figures would now be confidential.

The paper’s online readership increased, of course, but without preventing grave damage to the bottom line. The paper’s losses over the last five years add up to £515 million. Phone-hacking litigation cost it £128.3 million in 2022 and a still substantial £51.6 million last year.

Now, despite all the company’s expensive containment efforts, this long-running scandal is threatening to enter a new phase. While the settlements have been confidential, the discovery processes in these 1600-plus cases have put mountains of material on the public record, all of it ignored by most of the media but explored in Prospect by Davies. Material from police files and company records — emails, call data, payments to private investigators, minutes of meetings and voicemail messages — has filled gaps, fuelled new allegations and opened up new questions.

One new source of information is the record of the thousands of calls — most far too brief to be an ordinary conversation between a journalist and a source — made from “hub numbers” at News’s East London headquarters. The use of a hub of this kind makes the identity of individual callers impossible to determine. Although the company vehemently denies it, these were most likely phone-hacking exercises — attempts, successful or not, to listen to the targets’ voicemail messages. Some 222 such calls were made from the hub to Huhne’s mobile phone.

The new disclosures also give more precision and detail to the long-suspected concealment and destruction of evidence by News Group. In September 2010, when actor Sienna Miller was charging that News had illegally tapped her phone, her lawyer advised the company that it must preserve any evidence relevant to the case. This seems merely to have hastened a process of destruction that was already under way.

The previous November chief executive Rebekah Brooks had directed News technicians to “eliminate in a consistent manner… emails that could be unhelpful in the context of future litigation.” In the months following Miller’s lawyer’s letter the company destroyed nearly thirty-one million emails. Many of these could be retrieved from backups but at least nine million were never recovered. All the journalists involved in reporting on Miller had their computers destroyed.

Similarly, nearly all the email and paper records of private detective Glenn Mulcaire’s work were deleted. Although the detective worked for News Group full-time for six years, Murdoch executives eventually told police they had only sixty emails and a single piece of paper related to his employment there.

A pattern of minimal cooperation was implemented from the highest levels. “The Murdoch company,” writes Davies, eventually “surrendered to the police a thumb drive that it claimed contained all the emails; it was encrypted; the company refused to help to decrypt it; and it has never been opened.”

Likewise, “the new material discloses that police seized 125 items used for office storage and placed them all in a secure areas under the supervision of two senior Murdoch execs. Several weeks later detectives found that only 117 items remained. Eight filing cabinets belonging to Myler and another editor had been removed. They have never been recovered.”

The scandal’s initial focus was on the invasion of privacy and the hurt caused to people by the tabloids’ ruthless pursuit of sensational stories and competitive advantage. The evidence brought together by Davies indicates the Murdoch organisation was also using criminal methods to smear political opponents and gather political intelligence. In these cases, the aim was not to get stories but rather to advance the company’s corporate interests by targeting MPs and other public figures seen as hostile.

The new evidence shows that more than 1500 hub calls were made to sixteen Liberal Democrat MPs who had criticised News Group, while the two most outspoken Labour MPs — Tom Watson and Paul Farrelly — had respectively 176 and 162 calls. The two MPs also allege their landlines were bugged.

The illegalities lasted longer than initially thought, continuing unabated even after the scandal broke. On 19 July 2011 Rupert Murdoch told a House of Commons committee that he was “completely and deeply sorry” for the hacking and he would do all he could to prevent it happening again. Yet at that very moment, the hub data suggests that his organisation was eavesdropping on several members of the committee.

In recent years several politicians have launched cases against News. So far Liberal Democrats Chris Huhne, Adam Sanders and the estate of former leader Charles Kennedy have made confidential settlements. Several other prominent Liberal Democrats (Vince Cable, Norman Lamb, Tim Farron and Evan Harris) and Labour figures (Paul Farrelly, Andy Burnham and Peter Mandelson) have actions pending. Charges by Prince Harry are scheduled to be heard in court next year, while former prime minister Gordon Brown has requested that Scotland Yard investigate News Group illegalities against him.

The significance of Davies’s revelations — which are denied by News — would of course need to be tested in court. As he writes, “It will fall to the Metropolitan Police and the Crown Prosecution Service to check the reality of the new evidence, to decide whether any of it is strong enough to warrant opening an investigation and, if so, whether it would be right to bring any charges against any of those alleged to be involved in unlawful behaviour.”

Perhaps this longest-running of scandals still has a few more twists and turns.

Article amended on 20 May 2024 to correct the number of defendants found guilty in the 2013–14 trial.


Republished from Inside Story, International May 15, 2024

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