- Medical records of comedian and famous politician allegedly targeted
- Managing Editor ‘knew’ about criminal taskings, it is claimed
- But NGN says disclosing more expense claims is disproportionate, and:
- The Sun says it could offer ‘public interest’ defence at trial
By Graham Johnson
Editor, Byline Investigates
AN EXPENSES paper-trail at The Sun revealed a newsroom conspiracy to spy on addicts in recovery, people’s private doctors’ notes, and even their texting habits, the High Court in London has heard.
Among those targeted by senior serving journalists at the tabloid were a politician and a comedian in rehab, a pregnant woman for her medical records, and a cricketer, whose texting habits were monitored.
Former footballer Paul Gascoigne’s medical records were also fraudulent ‘blagged’, according to lawyers acting for 49 people currently suing The Sun for phone hacking and privacy breaches.
Of emails and expenses forms disclosed to the claimants, Barrister David Sherborne said: “There are some extraordinary examples… of highly intrusive unlawful information-gathering techniques being used in relation to, for example, medical histories, financial histories… pregnancy stories.”
The new revelations come as The Sun, which faces 52 more new lawsuits in the wings, maintains its defence of denying or ‘non-admitting’ almost all of the allegations against it; instead challenging all its accusers to prove their cases.
This tactic has triggered court orders for the release of 578 internal documents so far that, claimants say, suggest both serving Sun Chief Foreign Correspondent Nick Parker and news-desk executive John Sturgis commissioned illegal acts for stories.
At the High Court on October 31 and November 1, the claimants asked for more of the same sorts of disclosure, which The Sun tried to resist by making the unusual argument that its opponents already possessed enough evidence to present their cases.
Court 31 of the Rolls Building in London heard that Mr Parker paid for confidential health information and claimed back expenses for taking to dinner the private investigator who obtained them on his behalf.
Arguing for The Sun’s publisher News Group Newspapers to make further disclosures of Mr Parker’s expenses, Mr Sherborne said: “Mr Parker’s expenses (show) clear Unlawful Information Gathering (UIG), such as the use of blaggers to obtain medical and phone records, and the purchase of mobile phone top-up vouchers for unregistered mobile phone SIM cards in order to make ‘untraceable’ and ‘sensitive’ calls.”
“It is unquestionable”, Mr. Sherborne said in his skeleton argument, “that these extracts demonstrate UIG”.
Speaking on his feet, the barrister took Mr Justice Mann to examples of allegedly incriminating expenses sheets, which were disclosed to claimants in June this year.
They included a hard copy expense form, dated October 13 2004, on which Mr Parker had written on his expense claim: “Football girl pregnancy scare,” as his justification for meeting a “special contact.. re discreet medical checks.”
The court heard the special contact was private investigator Christine Hart, who allegedly specialised in ‘blagging’ the private health information of Mr Parker’s story targets.
On February 5, 2005, Mr Parker claimed for another meal, allegedly with Ms Hart, in relation to a blag on the medical records of a ‘famous’ politician in Knightsbridge who had been admitted to The Priory Hospital. A separate log showed a payment to the PI related to this tasking, the court heard.
In a further record of his spending at work, dated December 22, 2004, Mr Parker referred to a story about “England cricketers star secret fling’ for which he had to ‘meet with phone records tracer to receive print-out to check text messages.”
But the court heard Mr Parker’s boss disputed one lunch expense with Ms Hart as it was claimed for a restaurant too close to the reporter’s home – evidence, say the claimants, of high level editorial knowledge of activities at The Sun.
The paper’s then Managing Editor – who the court heard was either Richard Barun or Graham Dudman – had allegedly written the word ‘Twickenham’ next to the expenses claim entry.
Mr Sherborne said: “But they didn’t say, ‘this is illegal, what on earth are you doing?’”
Clare Montgomery QC, counsel for NGN, unsuccessfully claimed this line of argument made the paper’s case against further disclosures.
She said this evidence of Managing Editor approval, of both Nick Parker’s expenses and the electronic payments direct to Christine Hart, were enough to make the claimants’ point that senior people at the paper were part of a conspiracy to obtain personal information by deception.
Therefore, Ms Montgomery proposed, there was no need for NGN to disclose further examples of Mr Parker’s alleged criminality.
Mr Sherborne, however, stuck to his point, citing more cases of allegedly suspicious entries on Mr Parker’s expenses.
On March 29, 2005, Mr Parker made an entry about a well-known comedian in “Priory booze hell” – a reference to a well-known addiction clinic in West London.
Mr Parker noted a meeting with his ‘medical records contact’ to confirm the story. Again, there were separate payments to Christine Hart, approved by a Managing Editor, for alleged ‘unlawful information gathering’.
The allegations of criminality to emerge from Mr Parker’s expenses led claimants to suspect other similar evidence could exist in relation to other journalists.
The claimants have already seen a limited sample of expenses relating to The Sun’s ex-News Editor Chris Pharo, news desk executive John Sturgis, former defence correspondent Virginia Wheeler and veteran reporter Jamie Pyatt.
Mr Sturgis is alleged to have met a source providing him with the medical records of a famous singer and on another occasion collected phone records from another source, according to a legal document.
Mr Sherborne said: “The Claimants have now seen that the News Desk executives were aware of this activity and that it was conducted with its knowledge and approval.”
He went on: “In an email exchange on 28 December 2007 with a subject line ‘Gazza’, Alastair Taylor tells John Sturgis that the tipster had ‘no way of corroborating any of this’ and ‘the only hope I can see is one of Mr Parker‘s blaggers to see if we can get some detail on what his medical condition actually was.”
To the request, Mr Sturgis allegedly replied: “Think we did all that at the time, it‘s a dead one.”
Mr Sherborne also cited a payment linked to Sun journalist Thomas Whittaker, to Christine Hart.
Clare Montgomery QC, representing NGN, said all of the expenses have been gathered together and everything was a “known quantity” implying that further disclosure was unnecessary.
She argued that the same information about Christine Hart was available from other forms of disclosure such as emails.
Ms Montgomery said: “We are at the point when at each turn you have to make an assessment as to the proportionality of what is being sought, and consider what, if anything, it adds to the weight of the case, because we submit we have come now to the stage where it is simply disproportionate to look in vaster and vaster storage areas for less and less useful information.”
Lawyers for NGN also argued against further ‘unredactions’ on Mr Parker’s expense forms, stating that it could lead to ‘jigsaw identification’ of confidential sources.
Ms Montgomery said there may also be “a public interest explanation for what happens in the case of blagging”.
A trial is scheduled to commence in October 2020.
The case continues…