By Graham Johnson
Editor, Byline Investigates
THE SUN newspaper ordered specialist data ‘blaggers’ to target every leading bone and intestinal cancer specialist in London in an attempt to obtain the confidential medical information of a seriously ill woman, the High Court has heard.
Two senior editorial staff used company emails to coordinate the systematic “trawl” of medical experts, which lawyers for alleged victims of phone hacking at the tabloid say showed a newsgathering culture “shocking in its level of intrusion”.
The paper’s aim was to learn intimate details of the unnamed woman’s battle with the disease by paying investigators to obtain her private health information so it could later be published, according to the claimants’ barrister David Sherborne.
The emails sent by Chief Foreign Correspondent Nick Parker to Head of News Chris Pharo on October 18, 2006, – when The Sun was selling more than 3.1m copies a day – emerged in hearings to establish how much of its own internal documentation should be disclosed ahead of a civil trial over alleged phone hacking.
In them, Mr Parker wrote: “Checks at St Mark’s (Hospital) Harrow came up with no sign of X heiress (her name was removed by The Sun’s lawyers before disclosing the emails). Have gone back to contact seeking more info.”
He went on: “Blaggers (are) now attempting manual trawl of all top London specialists in bone cancer and intestinal cancers in the hope that we get lucky but will take time.”
The reference to blagging – using deception to obtain private information, a method of journalism justified only in cases of clear public interest – is potentially damaging to Rupert Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers (NGN) which is denying a range of allegations against its market-leading newspaper, including both illegal voicemail interception and unlawfully obtaining confidential phone billing data of members of the public.
Its solicitors, Clifford Chance, said in a statement: “NGN intends robustly to defend, in particular, allegations made in respect of The Sun.”
At the hearing, the company’s barrister, Anthony Hudson QC, did not comment on the alleged fraudulent acquisition of medical data.
On March 10 and 11, at the High Court’s Rolls Building on Fetter Lane in the heart of London’s legal quarter, Mr Justice Mann heard details of a slew of alleged privacy infringements which – in a witness statement – the claimants’ solicitor said formed “clear evidence” of illegal activity at The Sun, “some of it extremely shocking in its level of intrusion”.
The new evidence of allegedly illegal activity is seen as potentially ground breaking for alleged victims of press intrusion – and a thorn in the side of Rupert Murdoch’s latest bid to take full control of Sky TV – as The Sun has hitherto escaped accusations of phone hacking, unlike its former sister paper the News of the World.
Mr Murdoch’s first attempt to take full ownership of Sky (then called BSkyB) was shelved in 2011 when the News of the World was closed down on his orders after 168 years in print amid public outrage over its hacking of the voicemail messages of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.
A chastened Mr Murdoch apologised personally to the Dowler family amid uproar over the News of the World’s activities.
His son, James Murdoch, is CEO of 21st Century Fox, which is bidding to buy the whole shareholding in Sky plc, of which James is also the Chairman, in an £11.7bn merger.
Now new evidence is raising fresh questions about how the Murdochs run their businesses, focusing on many of The Sun’s top editorial players.
It is not the first time Mr Parker and Mr Pharo have faced accusations of breaking the law in pursuit of stories.
Mr Parker was arrested under Operation Elveden – the Metropolitan Police Service’s investigation into payments to public officials – but acquitted of corrupting a police officer at the Old Bailey in 2014.
He was, however, convicted of handling the stolen mobile phone of Labour MP for Mitcham and Morden, Siobhain McDonagh, receiving a suspended three-month jail sentence.
He was subsequently reinstated into his senior role at The Sun, despite News International’s previously declared “zero tolerance” policy towards wrongdoing.
Mr Pharo was prosecuted under Operation Elveden but acquitted in a re-trial at the Old Bailey, the jury in his first trial at Kingston Crown Court having failed to reach a verdict.
Many of the new hacking allegations made in court – details of which will follow in a series of special Byline Investigates reports – arise between 2003 and 2009 when Rebekah Brooks edited The Sun.
Mrs Brooks, who is Chief Executive of News UK – the new name for The Sun’s parent company – previously resigned as its CEO in July 2011, reportedly receiving a pay-off in excess of £16m, just as the business was making redundant the jobs of around 200 News of the World staff.
She went on to be acquitted of phone hacking and other charges at the Old Bailey in 2014, while her close colleague Andy Coulson – with whom it emerged she had engaged in an affair – was convicted and sent to prison.
In 2015, Rupert Murdoch reinstated her to lead the company, which is again being sued by alleged victims of illegal newsgathering, with Mrs Brooks now a possible witness in the new civil trial.
The stakes for the Murdochs are high. During the hearing, two lawyers close to Mrs Brooks and James Murdoch, were seated together at the rear of the courtroom behind News Corporation’s defence team.
Angus McBride and Jeremy Sandelson watched with interest while the business set out the framework for its defence.
In January 2016, Mrs Brooks personally made Mr McBride News UK’s general counsel after he led her own successful defence against criminal charges at the Old Bailey.
Mr Sandelson, the Global Head of Litigation and Dispute Resolution at Clifford Chance – which describes itself as “one of the world’s pre-eminent law firms” – helped prepare James Murdoch for the Leveson Inquiry in 2012, and steered him through his appearance before a parliamentary committee investigating the phone-hacking scandal.
Mr Sandelson has also in the past acted for Piers Morgan, former editor of Mr Murdoch’s News of the World and of the rival newspaper Daily Mirror, during the investigation into unlawful share tipping in the City Slickers scandal, which saw two of Mr Morgan’s journalists convicted. Mr Morgan himself was cleared by a DTI inquiry of any wrongdoing.
NGN denies phone hacking by The Sun newspaper. The first civil phone hacking claims involving The Sun are set to be tried by the High Court in October this year.
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