By Graham Johnson
Editor, Byline Investigates
A KEY witness did not “tell the truth” in a sworn statement denying wrongdoing while employed by Rupert Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers, the High Court heard.
Journalist Matthew Acton had claimed never to use private investigators to obtain people’s private phone billing details for the News of the World – only for emerging internal emails and invoices to directly contradict him.
In one email to his boss, disclosed as part of ongoing phone hacking litigation against the business, Mr Acton even discussed how a “private dick” (private investigator) had interrogated the call logs of an unnamed target by ringing their telephone service provider.
“So he is quite clear… (Acton) says this: ‘I have never used a private investigator, nor have I instructed anyone else to use a private investigator on my behalf’,” ~ Claimants’ barrister David Sherborne
In a message to the paper’s former Head of Features Gary Thompson, Mr Acton wrote: “As suspected, call details are so fresh no bill has been produced. Private dick got them over the phone from phone companies but here is the full record.”
Mr Acton, a former feature writer at the tabloid, gave a sworn statement in December last year to the High Court in London, but changed his evidence following the release of further emails by NGN – dropping the denials without explanation – just prior to a pre-trial review on September 27.
Of the December statement, Claimants’ barrister David Sherborne told managing Judge Mr Justice Mann: “(Mr Acton) says this, the last sentence: ‘I never requested or received phone records, financial statements, tax or medical records from tracing agents’.
“So he is quite clear on that, then… he says this: ‘I have never used a private investigator, nor have I instructed anyone else to use a private investigator on my behalf’.”
Mr Acton had also insisted he knew the term ‘blagging’ to have only innocent connotations, when the Claimants say it meant the potentially illegal act of obtaining private information by deception.
He stated: “I understood the term ‘blag’ to refer to someone obtaining unremarkable information such as whether a person was staying in a hotel. I myself have done this.”
At the Rolls Building of the High Court in London, Mr Sherborne then referred to a statement from Steve Whittamore, a former PI convicted of data blagging offences in 2005 following Operation Motorman, the Information Commissioner’s Office’s (ICO) probe into widespread criminality on Fleet Street.
In it Mr Whittamore, who has now become a witness for claimants suing NGN, said: “Mr Acton states… ‘I have never used a private investigator nor have I instructed one’.
“I was a private investigator and was known as such by my customers, of which Mr Acton was a frequent one.”
Mr Whittamore added: “I was often asked for ex−directory numbers of famous people who did not publicly list their numbers for a reason… although Mr Acton says he has never requested or seen phone records, the documents I have seen show otherwise.’”
Mr Sherborne said: “Then he refers to documents which prove that Mr Acton is not telling the truth.”
Mr Whittamore stated: “I see the manuscript notes of the blue book (a record book of Mr Whittamore’s) that Mr Acton, whom I am told specialises in Coronation Street, being based in Manchester… requested that I carry out a Granada ’blag’.
“It must have been he who suggested I tried to ‘blag’ Granada (television) to obtain information.”
Mr Acton, who still writes regularly as a freelance for The Sun, with 70 articles by-lined on its website since last December, alongside around 40 for the MailOnline in the last year, claimed his use of ‘tracing agents’ was limited to searches for publicly available addresses and phone records.
But Mr Sherborne referred again to Steve Whittamore’s evidence, this time relating to work he allegedly did for Mr Acton on the entertainer Mick Hucknall in 1999.
Mr Whittamore stated: “I have seen that I have written Mr Acton’s name next to the words ‘friends and family search’ for American numbers for a Hucknall, who I presume to be the singer Mick Hucknall.
“This would have been a blag of Mr Hucknall’s phone billing information in order to see what American numbers he called frequently.
“‘F&F’ was short for ‘friends and family’, and would have resulted from a direct request from Mr Acton to obtain that information.
“It was an expensive task and I would have not done it on my own whim and then billed it…
“This would appear to undermine his claim that he never requested or received phone records.’”
Mr Sherborne then read excerpts containing “deeply suspicious references” from a story Mr Acton wrote in the News of the World in 1999 about the Simply Red singer.
The story read: “Simply Red star Mick Hucknall was holding an emotional reunion with his mother Maureen who abandoned him when he was just two years old.
“‘Mick saw his mum for the first time in 37 years while he was visiting Texas, where she lives with her fourth husband.
“‘It was (a) huge turn-around for the star who told Maureen to get lost when she contacted him in 1987’.”
Mr Sherborne said a corresponding invoice headed ‘Mick Hucknall/Acton’, and dated November 7, 1999 – the day the article was published – had been found in a payment database held by NGN referred to as the ‘ZC’ data-set.
Another cache of payment data from the same time called ‘ZA’, is now set to be disclosed to claimants.
Explaining the need for Mr Justice Mann to grant that disclosure, he went on: “When we have journalists like Mr Acton who are, we say, not telling the truth… and say, ‘I have never used a private investigator’, and we then find a specific invoice, and we find it only because we have managed to match up what Mr Whittamore finds in his ICO book in relation to Mr Acton, we can then disprove what these journalists are saying.
“That is why individual invoices are incredibly important to us.”
News Group Newspapers denies wrongdoing on behalf of its executives, The Sun and the News of the World Features department.
The case continues…