By Graham Johnson
Editor, Byline Investigates
THE SUN’S top television critic Ally Ross is to be cross-examined in the High Court over the use of a private investigations company notorious for supplying Fleet Street with stolen private information, Byline can report.
The 51-year-old columnist will be quizzed over a £266.73 payment attributed to him – and disclosed by his employers – for ‘trace enquiries’ to PI firm Trace Direct International Ltd (TDI) while he edited the paper’s UK Confidential gossip column in 1999.
Ross is claiming ignorance of both the payment and TDI, the company found in a 2015 landmark High Court to have illegally supplied phone-billing data to journalists at Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN), who then used it hack mobile phones.
“We will (want) to cross-examine him on this… he says: even though it has my name on it, I never dealt with TDI,” ~ Claimants’ barrister David Sherborne
Instead, in a sworn statement, Ross blamed another unnamed journalist for paying TDI, saying it is “likely” it was a fee for their “contact”, for a story used in UK Confidential, while insisting he himself had never in his career used a PI.
Lawyers for claimants alleging illegal news-gathering at The Sun and News of the World, said Ross’s was a “novel” defence to evidence indicating the use of Britain’s most prolific known supplier of unlawfully sourced personal information.
At a pre-trial review on September 27, barrister David Sherborne, for the claimants, said: “(This) is a novel unpleaded defence, that payments to TDI were in fact payments to a contact, and not a private investigator.”
Presiding judge Mr Justice Mann responded: “He is basically saying: I didn’t deal with these people, somebody else, one of my other reporters must have dealt with them. Is he saying more than that?”
Mr Sherborne replied: “I think he is. We will (want) to cross-examine him on this. But he says: even though it has my name on it, I never dealt with TDI.”
Ross will be cross-examined at a trial of the facts due to begin on October 15, as part of the claimants’ generic case – which is denied by his employers News Group Newspapers (NGN) – that reporters at The Sun, encouraged by editors including Dominic Mohan and Rebekah Brooks, were illegally hacking phones and blagging private data between 1998 and 2011.
The Claimants said it meant NGN ought now to disclose more invoices for 1998-9 – from the so-called ‘ZA’ data-set – so lawyers can check for any more payments to known PI firms and “blaggers” connected to Ross and his contemporaries.
In a statement, lead solicitor for the claimants, Chris Hutchings, cited excerpts of Ross’s written testimony, which read: “I do not recall ever using a search agent or a private investigator at any time in my career and I do not recall any other reporter at The Sun or the News of the World ever using them.”
Ross added: “I have never heard of TDI Ltd. The payment was made at a time when I wrote the ‘UK Confidential‘ column… that column was made up of small stories worked on by other reporters… therefore, it is likely that this payment was to a contact of one of these reporters.”
He went on: “The payment entry likely included my name because the story ended being published in my ‘UK Confidential’ column.”
TDI’s unlawful activities have been a regular feature in on-going phone hacking litigation against both News Group Newspapers, and rival company Mirror Group Newspapers.
Their regular services included the use of deception to obtain information – what claimants call ‘blagging’ – such as people’s private phone bills, and potentially medical records, and tax and credit card information.
Ally Ross began his career as a junior reporter on The Sun in 1997, working on the Bizarre showbiz desk for a year under the editorship of Andy Coulson, who went on to become the editor of the News of the World and Press secretary to David Cameron. Coulson was convicted of conspiring to hack phones at the Old Bailey in 2014.
On Bizarre, Ross worked with serving Sun on Sunday editor Victoria Newton and also the late Sean Hoare, a journalist who became a key hacking whistle-blower, who named Coulson as a practitioner of that “dark art” during the period in question.
Ross denies ever seeing any illegal activities during his time working for Bizarre, after which he moved on to UK Confidential, before being poached in 2000 by the News of the World’s then editor Rebekah Wade (now Brooks) to become its television critic.
Mr Coulson at the time was Ms Wade’s deputy on the Sunday tabloid.
At the time of his hiring, Ross told The Guardian newspaper: “I can’t wait to start – my admiration for Rebekah and Andy knows no bounds.”
When Ms Brooks, serving Chief Executive of News Group Newspapers’ parent company News UK, moved to become editor of The Sun in 2003, Ross went with her.
The case continues…