This article was first published 28-02-2018
By Graham Johnson
Editor, Byline Investigates
THE High Court has ordered James Murdoch to finally address allegations that he and Rebekah Brooks oversaw a criminal cover up of phone hacking at The Sun, Byline Investigations can reveal.
Until now the 45-year-old media mogul – through The Sun’s publisher News UK, of which Mrs Brooks is Chief Executive – has made neutral “non-admissions” on the claims, which centre on the concealment of evidence and destruction of 20 million emails at the height of the phone hacking scandal.
“The defendant must state which allegations he is unable to admit or deny but which he requires the claimant to prove,” ~ Mr Justice Mann
Now, Mr Justice Mann, sitting at the Rolls Building on February 6, has said the company’s legal tactic contravenes rules governing civil court actions.
Giving News UK until Easter to defend the allegations – either by admitting them, denying them, or explaining why it can’t do either – Justice Mann said: “The defendant must state which allegations he is unable to admit or deny but which he requires the claimant to prove.”
The claims against James Murdoch – Chairman of News UK’s predecessor News International until 2012 – are outlined in a 282-page ‘skeleton’ document drafted by lawyers acting for 47 claimants alleging phone hacking at the Murdoch family’s flagship UK tabloid The Sun.
News UK has always denied any wrongdoing at The Sun, insisting the destruction of emails after police had launched a criminal probe into voicemail interception at the business was done for innocent reasons.
As it has chosen to make “non-admissions” so far, its side of the story has yet to come out – but is now expected to emerge in the response ordered by Justice Mann.
“I am concerned that your non−admissions are not really compliant with the CPR (Civil Procedure Rules),” Justice Mann told Clare Montgomery QC, for News UK.
He went on: “So I will make that direction: in the case of all non−admissions you state the basis of your non−admission, in particular whether you are unable to admit or deny and otherwise what the basis is if you are not admitting.”
Claimants’ barrister David Sherborne set out the seriousness of the allegations against senior management at a previous court hearing.
He said: “We allege criminality at the most senior people including James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks and senior editors.”
He said News UK had engaged in blanket non-admissions of the claimants’ allegations, adding that journalists had lied when they said in statements to the court that they didn’t know about phone hacking and blagging, or the obtaining of private information of members of the public by deception.
A trial to test the facts and witnesses is now scheduled to begin in October this year after a previous trial due to begin last month failed to go ahead when News UK settled four test cases – at which the email allegations would have been aired – on the steps of the court.
James Murdoch has always denied knowing as far back as 2008 that phone hacking was widespread at the News of World, which was The Sun’s sister paper, occupying the same floor at their Wapping HQ, until its closure in 2011 amid outrage at its targeting of a murdered schoolgirl for voicemail interception.
Indeed, a 2008 email informing him of the potential scope of phone hacking at the News of the World was among those deleted in what claimants say was a purge of evidence.
The skeleton argument claims that News UK: “Continued to pursue a deliberate policy of email deletion with knowledge and approval at the highest level… with the expressly stated objective of ‘eliminating emails that could be unhelpful in the context of future litigation in which an NI company is a defendant’.”
It goes on: “As well as its batch deletions of millions of emails, News UK engaged in targeted deletions of emails which allowed NGN to focus on and purge incriminating evidence of unlawful activities and the attempts by senior employees to cover up such evidence,” adding: “This was done in the belief that these emails would not be backed up and therefore be permanently lost.”
Among other allegations News UK must now address are those that it gagged former employees and contractors convicted of criminal offences with six-figure pay-outs, in order to avoid them giving incriminating evidence or making admissions about the true scale of the company’s illegality.
The case continues…