Full disclosure: The court case reported below has heard references to a witness statement given by Graham Johnson, in support of the claimants, who are suing Mirror Group (now Reach PLC) for phone hacking and unlawful information gathering. Mr. Johnson is the former Investigations Editor at the Sunday Mirror. Mr. Johnson is now the Head of Investigations at byline.com and bylineinvestigates.com.
PIERS MORGAN has been ‘strongly implicated’ in illegal newspaper phone hacking in a High Court legal document, Byline Investigates can report.
The former Editor of Britain’s Daily Mirror tabloid has always denied knowing his journalists were accessing people’s private voicemails to find stories to publish – or that it was going on at his paper.
However, Mr Morgan and his former deputy and successor at the 126-year-old title, Richard Wallace, have now been named in the skeleton argument of claimants suing the Mirror’s publisher, Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN), for allegedly unlawful news gathering.
This week Mr. Morgan made headlines as the only British TV interviewer to enjoy an on-camera one-on-one with US President Donald Trump during his state visit to the UK.
But at the Rolls Building in the heart of London’s legal quarter – the stage for a long running series of law suits relating to widespread historical wrongdoing at MGN – he and his former Head of News were being named in a “summary judgment” application made on behalf of people suing the publisher for allegedly misusing their private information.
The Claimants, in the current round of a rolling managed litigation, allege that Mirror editors and journalists hacked and ‘blagged’ on more than 1,000 newspaper articles, which they say were unlawfully published.
But Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN) applied to the High Court to have 20 of these articles “struck-out” as having no prospect of success, in what they argued was a bid to save time and legal costs.
This is because potential victims of phone hacking, who launch cases against the Mirror, have to identify suspicious articles, which their lawyers argue contain private information that has been illegally obtained.
This process is known as ‘pleading’ articles in legal documents called “Particulars of Claim”.
In response, MGN have to issue their own pleading – their Defence – in which they can either admit, deny, or “not admit”, unlawful activity in general against the claimant, and do the same in respect of each pleaded article.
If at trial, the presiding judge, determines that the articles do breach privacy, and have been derived from hacking or pretext blagging – obtaining people’s private information by deception – then the victims are awarded compensation on each article.
In practice, MGN has been settling most cases for an amount often relating to the number of articles pleaded and time span of alleged illegal activity.
However, MGN is now claiming that celebrities and sports personalities are abusing the system – and pleading too many stories that have been legally obtained and do not breach privacy in any event.
The Mirror’s barrister, Richard Spearman QC, told the court that many of the articles – that were claimed to be hacked – contained information that was already in the public domain.
He said the information was not private, because details had already been published in other newspapers or in news agency copy, and that no illegal story-gathering methods had been used.
However, David Sherborne, barrister for the claimants, argued – from case law – that prior publication did not necessarily mean that information did not retain a quality of privacy based on the intrusion that further publication represented.
He added that hacking and blagging could have been used, even if the ‘fruits’ of that illegality had not been published.
One of the claimants – two of whose stories the Mirror was seeking to strike-out – is Britain’s Got Talent judge David Walliams.
In his case, Mr. Walliams is relying on a list of 45 articles, which he suspects are the product of voicemail interception or other unlawful information gathering.
One of them, mentioned in a court document, was headlined ‘The Gospel According To Geri’, published in the Daily Mirror showbiz column on the May 15, 2008.
The story was about Mr. Walliams being asked to read out an altered passage from the Bible at Geri Halliwell’s daughter’s christening.
The bylined journalist on the story is called Polly Hudson, a long-standing Daily Mirror showbusiness correspondent, who served under Piers Morgan and Richard Wallace.
Mr. Walliams’ lawyer Roddy Chisholm-Batten argued in a witness statement that Ms. Hudson’s career had been linked to Mr. Morgan and Mr. Wallace, and that in previous waves of litigation the Mirror had paid compensation on claims, which included her stories.
David Sherborne stated in his skeleton argument: ‘The bylined journalist – Polly Hudson – is described by Mr Chisholm-Batten as an “acolyte” of Richard Wallace and Piers Morgan – both of whom are strongly implicated in voicemail interception.
‘Ms. Hudson features quite heavily in a number of Wave 1 and Wave 2 claims which Clintons (Mr Walliams’s solicitors) acted in, and was by-lined in a number of articles which formed part of claims that settled for substantial damages.’
However, Mr. Spearman said the source of the stories, in general terms, were not hacks but rather interviews given by the celebrities themselves, comments made by their agents and sometimes copy from court reports.
He said: ‘(MGN) has found itself repeatedly faced in this Managed Litigation with claims for misuse of private information in respect of articles which, as soon as any research is done into the information said to have been private, it becomes clear were not revealing private information but instead merely repeating information that was already in the public domain – often as a result of disclosures by the Claimant themselves, or their agent, or as a result of matters being aired in open court.’
He blamed the claimants and the vast majority of legal advisers for not undertaking ‘research or consideration of what was already in the public domain before an article was published before alleging that the article must have been the product of unlawful activity.’
He added: ‘When such matters are pointed out to Claimants in pre-action correspondence, they are largely ignored, This unreasonable approach increases costs and is a hindrance to efficient settlement negotiations.’
Piers Morgan edited the Daily Mirror between 1995 and 2004, during the whole of which time hacking and blagging is alleged to have taken place on an industrial scale.
When he left the Mirror he went on to forge a successful career in TV and as columnist for the Daily Mail.
In the Report of Part 1 of the Leveson Inquiry, the veracity of Mr. Morgan’s testimony was questioned by Sir Brian Leveson who described Mr. Morgan’s assertion that he had no knowledge of alleged phone hacking as “utterly unpersuasive“.
After becoming the Mirror’s Showbusiness Editor, Richard Wallace was appointed Head of News in 2000. In 2003, he became deputy editor of The Sunday Mirror taking over the editorship of the Daily Mirror between 2004 and 2012.
In his 2015 judgment on the first representative cases in the Mirror Newspapers Hacking Litigation, Mr Justice Mann found that Richard Wallace and former Sunday Mirror editor Tina Weaver had misled the Leveson Inquiry into Press conduct in 2012.
The case continues…