THE SUN is being accused of hiding the name of a private investigator, allegedly hired to steal an MP’s phone data, by claiming they are a confidential journalistic source, the High Court in London has heard.
The paper – which denies wrongdoing – is using the European Convention on Human Rights to conceal the identity of the mystery man it paid to target Liberal Democrat Mark Oaten and his wife in November 2007.
“Mr Confidential of Pimlico”, as judge Mr Justice Mann called him, features in emails between senior journalists read out at the High Court by lawyers of alleged victims of illegal newsgathering by Rupert Murdoch’s UK tabloid.
“This appears to be a reference to obtaining a telephone number from phone bills or voicemails,” ~ claimants’ barrister David Sherborne
Under a court order, The Sun’s parent company News Group Newspapers (NGN), is obliged to hand over the emails if they suggest illegal PI use, but ‘redacted’ – blanked out – the name, claiming legal protection for freedom of expression.
Lawyers accusing NGN of industrial-scale ‘concealment and destruction of evidence’ say the company is using the cloak of journalistic source confidentiality to hide evidence of newsroom criminality.
Barrister David Sherborne told a case management conference on November 15 how Sun news executive James Clothier discussed obtaining a mobile number for Mr Oaten’s wife, Belinda, while he was MP for Winchester.
“This is what is written by Clothier to a number of people, senior people within The Sun, all of whom are still there at The Sun”, said Mr Sherborne, who then read from the disclosed email: “‘It will cost us a few quid payable to one…’ and then the confidential source, that is said to be, blanked out ‘…of Pimlico, but Mark Oaten’s number is…’”
Mr Sherborne added: “And then the number is redacted (blanked out). We understand why. ‘We can get…’ and then it names his wife, ‘his wife’s number from this’, namely the mobile.”
Addressing judge Mr Justice Mann, he went on: “Now, your Lordship will understand why we are very concerned at the suggestion that somehow this is a confidential source.
The judge added: “So they already know the individual’s number. So that’s not what they are paying Mr Confidential of Pimlico.”
The court heard the other journalists in the email chain included executives John Sturgis, Steve Kennedy, and Chris Pharo, none of whom is giving evidence at a trial due to start in February.
Mr Sherborne added: “NGN’s journalist James Clothier says that, knowing the mobile phone number of Mark Oaten, and by paying a redacted entity, ‘we can get Belinda’s number from this’.
“This appears to be a reference to obtaining a telephone number from phone bills or voicemails.”
NGN, however, is insisting the email exchange relates to a secret political source who was, in fact, only being paid to provide The Sun with Mr Oaten’s mobile phone number.
For the Claimants, Mr Sherborne said: “NGN claims it was they were paying a source for Mr Oaten’s mobile number, but do not explain how they were going to get Belinda Oaten’s number from that.”
Under normal circumstances, MPs’ mobile numbers are easily available to political journalists.
But in a witness statement, NGN’s solicitor Roger Best of Clifford Chance LLP, said: “NGN is not willing to reveal that source, in accordance with its rights under section 10 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 and Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights.
“This is on the instructions of both NGN and one of the journalists on the email chain.
“Clifford Chance’s instructions are that the source in question had political connections, and obtained Mr Oaten’s mobile number through those connections.
“NGN is unable to provide further detail without risking the identification of this source.”
The case continues…