Daily Mirror’s top lawyer Marcus Partington ‘was aware’ of phone hacking, court hears – but he has denied the allegation

Editor’s Note
Full disclosure: The following court report contains a reference to a tape-recording of a conversation that took place between former Trinity Mirror Chairman David Grigson and former Sunday Mirror journalist Graham Johnson. Mr Johnson is the Head of Investigations at byline.com and bylineinvestigates.com.

The Mirror newspaper’s top lawyer was aware that phone hacking was going on, court documents state.

Group Legal Director Marcus Partington allegedly had knowledge of the illegal practice, whereby journalists were listening to voicemails of celebrities and others.

Though Mr Partington was not in court on Thursday, he has previously denied knowing about phone hacking.

The claims were made at a case in the High Court in London, in which alleged victims of voicemail interception are suing Britain’s biggest newspaper publisher, Reach plc the owner of Mirror Group Newspapers Ltd.

The Claimants’ lawyers argued, that whilst phone hacking was going on at The Daily Mirror, The Sunday Mirror and The People, some members of the Board knew – and at least one in-house lawyer was also aware.

Trinity Mirror have previously denied that Board members knew about illegal practices.

The lawyers for the victims are running a case that is known as the ‘knowledge and concealment’ case, which alleges that Mirror executives – and members of the legal department – conspired to cover-up wrong doing.

However, lawyers for the Mirror argued that ‘the pursuit of these claims therefore raises fundamental problems’ with regard to ‘legal principles.’

In submissions, counsel for the claimants David Sherborne cited spoken comments made by the former Chairman of the Mirror Group David Grigson.

Mr. Grigson made the comments to a former employee at the company’s Annual General Meeting in 2015.

In his skeleton argument, Mr. Sherborne stated:

‘As part of their case on knowledge and concealment, the Claimants rely on the admission by Mr Grigson, the Chairman of the Board of Trinity Mirror plc, at the AGM on 7 May 2015 that Marcus Partington was aware that phone-hacking was going on at MGN’s titles.’

However, lawyers for the defendant said there was ‘no credible case’.

Richard Spearman QC said that members of the legal department only knew because they were giving legal advice to their client.

He added: ‘There is no credible case, and none is pleaded by the Claimants, that the in-house lawyers in the Defendant’s Legal Department learned of “the habitual or widespread use of these unlawful information-gathering activities” in circumstances which were not protected by legal professional privilege.’

Legal privilege protects all communications between a professional legal adviser and his or her clients from being disclosed without the permission of the client.

The allegations are contained in a transcript of the conversation referred to in open court.

The conversation was between David Grigson, the ex-Chairman of The Mirror Group, and Graham Johnson, the former Investigations Editor of one of the company’s national titles, The Sunday Mirror.

The comments in the transcript raise questions about what the Mirror’s current Group Legal Director Marcus Partington knew about phone hacking, alleging that he may even have been ‘aware’ that things were going on – an allegation that Mr. Partington has denied.

The transcript was deployed after the Mirror Group – now known as Reach – lost an earlier legal bid to keep some of the contents secret.

The publisher of 250 newspapers had previously tried – and failed – to obtain an injunction to keep the transcript of the conversation confidential, which would have prevented journalists from reporting it, and prevented the High Court being told about it..

Mr. Grigson was not on the Trinity Mirror Board when phone hacking was going on, but after joining in January 2012 took charge of the company’s Board which was supervising internal investigations.

He is now Chairman of digital media company Investis, and a non-executive director of Ocado, the supermarket delivery business.

Lawyers for the Mirror contested an application made by the claimants to get more disclosure related to Mr. Grigson and ‘Board knowledge.’

In his skeleton argument, Richard Spearman QC wrote: ‘The Board Knowledge disclosure exercise has already been completed… There is no mailbox data available for David Grigson…’

MGN, a subsidiary of publicly listed company, Trinity Mirror, had applied in December last year for a Court Order to stop parts the transcript from being relied on or deployed in court, by claimants suing Mirror Group Newspapers for phone hacking.

In his skeleton argument at the hearing on Thursday, Mr. Sherborne added:

‘As explained above, MGN raised an objection to the Claimants’ deployment of Mr Grigson’s statement in the aftermath of the Trinity Mirror AGM on the ground that it was privileged. [Mr Justice Norris] has since held that the Claimants should not be restrained from using that information, and Mr Grigson therefore remains central to the Claimants’ case on concealment. As the transcript shows, Mr Grigson was familiar with concerns about the phone hacking scandal, and admitted that Marcus Partington, the head of the Legal Department, had been aware of phone hacking at the relevant time.’

Mr. Sherborne asked the court for an order for the Mirror to search its databases for relevant documents that related to Mr. Grigson, for disclosure to the court.

But lawyers for the Mirror said the documents were non-existent, and the Mirror has applied to the court that ‘the allegations based on “concealment” and “failure to confess and reveal” should be struck out’.

Though there are 49 claimants suing the Mirror Group – and many more in the pipeline – two in particular were the first to allege Board and lawyer knowledge.

Lawyers for former TV presenter John Leslie and ex-reality TV star Chantelle Houghton have previously set out that: ‘The Claimant will refer to the fact that both the MGN/TMG Board (“the Board”) and the Legal Department were aware of the habitual or widespread use of these unlawful information-gathering activities at the Defendant’s newspapers by at least as early as 2002, and certainly by 2007.’

However, Mr. Spearman for the Mirror stated in court documents that they had not alleged concealment against Mirror lawyers. He wrote:

‘At the hearing on 24 October 2017, however, Counsel on behalf of Mr Leslie and Ms Houghton accepted that those Claimants were not in fact alleging concealment against the Legal Department.

‘Even on the basis that the significance of concealment on the part of the Board must await determination at trial, that cannot be allowed to result in the continuation (and expansion) of pleas against the Legal Department which are (a) bad in law, (b) involve incursions into the legal professional privilege that the Defendant is entitled to assert.’