Byline Investigates Big News, Part 25: Crisis for Mirror Group plc as Lawyers, Directors – and PIERS MORGAN – are accused of covering up phone hacking for 10 years. Head of Legal Marcus Partington also allegedly concealed company criminality to victims’ fury, court hears.
MIRROR Group Newspapers plc last night faced growing legal storm-clouds as both its directors and lawyers were accused at the High Court of orchestrating a 10-year cover up of phone hacking at its titles.
The bruising allegations are the first connected to the long-running voicemail interception affair to go beyond journalists and editors and focus on the controlling minds of the £233m business.
The claims were made during a hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice in which alleged victims of MGN titles’ phone hacking are suing the publisher for aggravated damages.
The court heard that the alleged concealment of criminality for more than a decade elevated the seriousness of the cases to ‘a totally different magnitude.’
The claimants include former This Morning presenter John Leslie, whose phone was hacked by journalists on all three Mirror titles when he was in the public eye in the 2000s.
Former Big Brother star Chantelle Hougton and Royal Family comic actor Ralf Little, who were in court with their lawyers, also claim their private information was misused when hacking was rife in 2002.
After the hearing, their solicitor Rebecca Willcox, of Hamlins, said that Ms Houghton and Mr Little ‘were taking an active interest in the case’.
The claimants say that phone hacking, and the cover-up that followed, continued at the paper’s Canary Wharf headquarters, even after the police became aware of the technique five years later, as a result of a widely-publicised criminal case at a rival paper, the News of the World.
David Sherborne, the barrister representing the victims, said that the ‘board and the legal department’ of The Mirror Group had ‘knowledge of phone hacking’ even though ‘this is a PLC (Public Limited Company)’.
He added: ‘They (the legal department and the board) knew about this (phone hacking) at the time in 2002 and certainly by 2007. Given that they knew, they should have stopped it.’
Mr Sherborne said that if the lawyers had stopped phone hacking, then ‘the victims would never have had to suffer.’
But instead the board and their in-house lawyers ‘deliberately took steps to conceal the activities’ and ‘provided false statements to the public by denying these activities.’
He said that the Mirror lawyers’ tactics had further distressed his clients, and that the concealment caused ‘real damage to real peoples’ lives because they thought they were above the law.
‘What has been discovered is far more serious. It’s aggravation of the greatest magnitude.’
Lawyers for The Mirror admitted that phone hacking took place, but argued that it didn’t matter whether the lawyers and board members knew.
The Mirror said that the claims of an alleged cover-up would take a long time to investigate.
In a witness statement submitted to the court, John Leslie’s lawyer Patrick Daulby went into more detail about the effects of the alleged cover-up.
He said that his client has been upset to find out that the Mirror lawyers had allegedly concealed information from him.
It caused Mr Leslie ‘enormous additional distress and upset….as a result of the discovery that the Board of MGN/TMG (Mirror Group Newspapers and Trinity Mirror Group) and the Legal Department must have been aware of the illegal activities taking place at the Defendant’s newspapers at the relevant time, but failed to take steps to prevent, or even confess and reveal them.’
Mr Daulby said the Mirror ‘went so far as to conceal or lie about the illegal activities publicly, thereby allowing such harm to continue’.
John Leslie was a television presenter at the height of his career in October 2002. He later lost his job after being accused of sexual assault and went bankrupt.
His solicitor added: ‘Mr Leslie has confirmed to me that the discovery that the Board and Legal Department knew about these activities and could have stopped them, but chose not to, and therefore so much (if not all) of what they he suffered as a result of these activities could have been avoided altogether, has caused enormous distress on his part.’
Two former investigative journalists turned whistleblowers at The Sunday Mirror, Graham Johnson and Dan Evans, submitted evidence to the court.
A legal document stated: ‘Mr Johnson gives evidence of the knowledge of senior executives and explains that he told a particular member of the legal department at the Sunday Mirror who was ‘legalling’ one of his stories that he had learned that two individuals had been communicating with each other by pulling their phone bills and checking the numbers that appeared in them.
“He even showed the lawyer the phone bills, which had been blagged by Jonathan Stafford.’
Jonathan Stafford was a voice-over actor turned private detective who specialised in blagging phone companies using deception.
The legal document went on: ‘Mr Evans has admitted that he was instructed not only how to undertake the unlawful activities, but also to take steps to conceal them by senior MGN executives themselves, who were personally engaged in or authorised or well aware of such acts.’
A constellation of senior Mirror lawyers, newspaper editors and board members, past and present, were named in court as being part of the phone hacking conspiracy.
Former Legal Director Paul Vickers was alleged to have known about phone hacking because he had approved ‘substantial’ payouts in legal cases which involved illegal activity.
The first case involved David Beckham who sued the Mirror in 2003.
The second case involved a former Sunday People journalist called David Brown, who alleged that he’d been unfairly dismissed.
In a statement made in 2007, Mr Brown alleged that phone hacking was taking place at all three Mirror titles.
He cited a story about the hacking of David Beckham’s nanny.
Mr Sherborne said: ‘The David Brown settlement was discussed at board level.’
In a legal document, Mr Sherborne revealed more detail about the employment tribunal case: ‘Mr Brown explained that in July 2005 MGN paid David Beckham substantial damages in settlement of a legal claim because it knew it could not rely on evidence obtained through voicemail interception in the proceedings.
‘Mr Brown also explained that the Head of Resources contacted executives on Trinity Mirror’s national titles on 8 August 2006 to tell them that if they were asked by other publications whether they had used information from “screwed” mobile phones, they should deny it.
‘The Claimants will rely on Mr Brown’s evidence, together with the investigation, verification and confidential settlement of his claim by the Legal Department, and its reporting to the Board, which demonstrated that they well aware of these and their truth.’
Several senior company officers below board level were also involved in investigating Mr. Brown’s claims of phone hacking, including senior lawyer Marcus Partington, Sunday Mirror Managing Editor John Honeywell and Daily Mirror Managing Editor Eugene Duffy.
Mr Sherborne said: ‘Mr Vickers was told about the settlement by Marcus Partington.’
Marcus Partington, who has since been promoted to the Mirror’s Head of Legal, was also accused of making a joke about alleged phone hacking in 2003.
Mr Partington, who is responsible for defending the Mirror in phone hacking litigation, has never admitted knowing about phone hacking.
Mr Sherborne claimed that former Mirror Chairman Sir Victor Blank had knowledge of phone hacking because he’d been present at a dinner in September 2002, when former Daily Mirror Piers Morgan was teasing TV presenter Ulrika Jonsson about accessing her voicemails.
The conversation was ‘to do with Mr. Morgan accessing their voicemails’ said Mr Sherborne.
Richard Spearman, the barrister for the Mirror, said that the evidence did not prove that Sir Victor Blank, or any other member of the board, knew about phone hacking.
The Sunday Mirror’s former Editor Tina Weaver and Head of News Nick Buckley were implicated in phone hacking.
Mr Sherborne said Tina Weaver had allegedly warned Dan Evans to be careful because knowledge of the illegal practice was leaking out.
In an exchange with Mr Evans, she said that celebrities and their lawyers were beginning to suspect that their messages were being listened to.
Mr Sherborne said: ‘Tina Weaver said… “There are lawyers out there who know what we are doing and are trying to catch us out.”
Mr Sherborne alleged Ms Weaver’s statement was evidence that the legal department knew about phone hacking, because the complaints from external lawyers were being passed to her from the Mirror legal department.
“Mr Sherborne said that the ‘legal department had knowledge and compliance.’
Former Showbiz journalist James Scott, who was working under the editorship of Piers Morgan, was hacking the voicemails of Ulrika Jonnson and Sven Goran Erikson, who were having an affair.
Richard Spearman, the Mirror’s barrister, said that it didn’t matter who knew about hacking because the company had already admitted wrongdoing, and had also admitted senior officers of the company knew, including those at editor level.
But Mr Sherborne said: ‘It makes a huge difference to Ms Houghton and Mr. Little.
‘It’s like finding out the President of the United States or the Prime Minister knew about this, and did nothing to stop it.’
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