This article was first published 24/05/2018
By Graham Johnson
Editor, Byline Investigates
NEWS UK chief executive Rebekah Brooks maintained “a close relationship” with a specialist medical records “blagger” she considered The Sun’s “most valuable” contact, the High Court heard yesterday.
The 49-year-old former Sun editor allegedly approved cash payments for deeply intrusive stories she knew the paper’s “particularly important blagger” Christine Hart had illegally obtained by deception, according to internal emails, disclosed in the hearing.
Documents reveal that in May 2006 Hart was allegedly paid £1,000 for obtaining the medical records of then pregnant former Spice Girl Geri Haliwell about the birth of daughter Bluebell Madonna, at the private Portland Hospital in London’s Fitzrovia.
The transactions were made via bank transfers, and recorded in The Sun’s payments’ ledgers.
Other celebrities including Liz Hurley claim that their medical data was “blagged” by Hart – who allegedly posed as a psychiatrist in ‘pretext’ phone call deceptions of hospital staff – on behalf of The Sun.
One Hart tasking related not to a news story for The Sun, the court heard, but the personal medical status of a member of the public suing the paper over a story involving the footballer Wayne Rooney.
It was said Brooks, cleared at the Old Bailey in 2014 of phone hacking after pleading that she was incompetent in her job – and therefore ignorant of the wrongdoing of her staff – funnelled Hart’s illegal services through senior Sun journalist Nick Parker.
In one email, disclosed by News UK to claimants alleging phone hacking and data theft against The Sun and its defunct sister title The News of the World, which Brooks also edited, she allegedly told Parker to “keep (Hart) onside” as she was “one of the paper’s most valuable contacts”.
Hart was paid through bank transfers as a contributor for at least 999 jobs for The Sun and News of the World, the court heard.
Payments in cash were not recorded in the same way, as the alleged aim was often to hide the payee, who may have been be a private investigator, or a police officer breaking the law.
Cash payments could be used to pay public interest whistle-blowers to protect their identity, but the public interest has not been a feature in NGN’s defence of the allegations.
Brooks is known to have personally signed off at least one cash transaction, with Parker allegedly keeping lists of other transactions hidden in ‘dead-letter’ draft emails.
With respect to NGN employees, she signed off hundreds.
The Claimants say that some of these cash payments were likely to have been to Hart, or another PI, for the medical blags that Parker described in his draft emails.
A total of 570 payments at least were allegedly made by The Sun, and at least 429 by the News of the World.
In addition, she was paid as an “invoicing supplier” at least another 70 times, NGN admitted in the hearing
Barrister David Sherborne said: “Despite Ms Hart having been used extensively by both titles over a long period of time, only a small number of emails relating to her have been disclosed by NGN.
“Nevertheless, the disclosed emails demonstrate… a close relationship with key Sun executives, including the editor and news editor.”
Separately, serving Sun on Sunday editor Victoria Newton – Brooks’ News UK protégé – was also named among journalists by-lined as authors of articles that Hart was paid for after allegedly gathering data illegally. The Sun and its journalists deny wrongdoing.
The Judge Mr Justice Mann, sitting at the Rolls Building, was hearing from lawyers acting for a wave of 31 claimants suing News UK for phone hacking and other breaches of privacy. They were arguing that News UK should disclose more emails and invoices relating to Hart, in time for a trial of the facts that can begin in October.
The court heard that Hart was a “particularly important” blagger in the case against The Sun, because she “tied illegal information-gathering” to senior executives, and not just reporters.
Mr Sherborne said Victoria Newton failed to mention Hart – whose services he described as “highly intrusive and illegal” – in a witness statement sworn to the court “which purported to address” private investigators and illegal blagging at The Sun.
Lawyers for News UK, which owns The Sun, deny obtaining medical records or hacking phones. The company has neither admitted nor denied using Hart for illegal means. Its lawyers Clifford Chance instead are challenging claimants to present what they say is ‘proper’ evidence to back-up their allegations
Rupert Murdoch’s lawyers insist that it up to the claimants to prove their case that Christine Hart was blagging medical records illegally, with the knowledge of senior journalists, and not up to them to offer an innocent explanation.
Lawyers for the claimants alleged that News UK hid Hart’s role, and that there were “steps taken” to conceal her work. Senior employees and executives allegedly lied about tasking her, the court was told.
Mr Sherborne said: “NGN (News Group Newspapers, parent of News UK) and its witnesses have either not been truthful or failed to give full accounts of their knowledge of Ms Hart’s activities.”
Lawyers for NGN argued that claimants have known about the significance of Christine Hart since 2016, and are not entitled to more disclosure, on the basis that they should have asked earlier.
Clare Montgomery QC said redactions of names and blags in disclosed emails should not prevented claimants from finding out about Hart.
But Mr Sherborne said a further eight Sun journalists – who have agreed to give evidence on behalf of the Sun in the October trial – were named in court documents, as having been by-lined in articles involving Ms Hart and none mentioned her in previous statements to the court.
Alongside Victoria Newton are veteran northern reporter Guy Patrick and former Showbiz and TV Editor Emily Smith.
Other journalists are Andy Crick, Alex Peake, Sara Nathan, Neil Syson, and Alex West.
“Not a single one of these journalists mention Ms Hart in their witness statement evidence, despite purporting to address the key issues of blagging and PIs,” Mr Sherborne said.
Appealing to the judge that it would struggle to carry out further email searches while also sticking to a timetable for preparing for an Autumn trial, it said in a document: “It is clear at this stage that the orders sought by claimants are likely to cause significant disruption to the trial timetable,” and, “…the further searches sought by claimants are disproportionate and unnecessary”.
The Sun is denying allegation after allegation about its past conduct.
It heard claimants argue that, in addition to being Hart’s handler at the paper, veteran Sun journalist Nick Parker also intercepted the voicemails of targets to find out if they were receiving medical treatment, and then used Hart to find out they specific reasons why.
Emails from other Sun journalists referred to Hart as “Nick Parker’s blagger”, and sometimes just “the blagger”.
In an email to his boss News Editor Chris Pharo requesting a £1,000 payment to her for “cracking” the story of Geri Haliwell’s birth, Parker – who was kept his job as Chief Foreign Correspondent despite being convicted of handling the stolen phone of an MP (trawled by The Sun for private text messages) in 2014 – referred to Ms Hart as the “med recs blagger” himself.
In another, May 2, 2006, to Sun Deputy Managing Editor Richard Barun, Parker wrote: “On March 23 Chris Pharo asked me to make as many urgent inquiries as possible including phone record checks and “blag” calls re the Wayne Rooney legal case.”
As well as tasking Hart with investigating Elizabeth Hurley to find out why she had entered a medical clinic, Parker also allegedly had her try to blag police workers into revealing the location of “Lotto rapist” Iorworth Hoare.
The court heard Parker often tasked another private investigator’s firm called Express Locate International (ELI) to work on background information, often to illegally obtain phone records of of victims, before he commissioned Hart
ELI has been named in previous court cases for obtaining itemised phone bills on an industrial scale, and also providing mobile numbers, voicemail pin numbers and security codes for voicemail boxes.
A legal document, written by the claimants’ lawyers, alleged: “It would appear, therefore, that Mr Parker found stories using voicemail interception and then used Ms Hart to stand them up (or vice versa).
“It appears that Mr Parker also paid Ms Hart by cash.”
In the same email to Barun, in which Parker is apparently complaining his expenses have been cut, allegedly reveals the use of aliases to conceal Hart’s true work for the paper.
Parker wrote: “It was my day off but I saw one contact in Kingston-on-Thames and another that evening in Kew. You cut £73.52 for entertaining ‘private investigator Christopher Hartnell’ in Kew.”
He went on: “This contact was in fact, private investigator Christine Hart – one of the paper’s most valuable contacts who both the news-desk and the editor have asked me to keep on side. I changed her name on my expenses so as not to compromise her as her work is very sensitive.”
Mr Justice Mann agreed in principle to make an order requiring NGN to search for and disclose more documents about the nature and scale of Ms Hart’s work, and her relationship to significant people at The Sun.
He agreed it was relevant to the matters before the court and that the Claimants were not too late.
The case continues…