- ONE OF Britain’s most senior print journalists stands accused of commissioning theft of confidential private papers from Royal banker Coutts & Co.
- DAILY and Sunday Express Editor Gary Jones allegedly targeted private financial data of Queen’s cousin Prince Michael of Kent
- PIERS Morgan was Jones’s boss at the time – and used the allegedly stolen bank statements in a front page story in the Daily Mirror
- MURDER-linked private detectives at notorious firm Southern Investigations did the work – leading to an alleged board level cover up, while:
- A HIGH COURT civil trial is set to hear The Mirror’s defence to the allegations in January next year
By Graham Johnson
Editor, Byline Investigates
PRINCE MICHAEL of Kent’s confidential bank statements were stolen to order for a Mirror newspaper executive who is now Editor-in-Chief of the Daily and Sunday Express, a High Court document alleges.
Former Mirror chief reporter Gary Jones – a protégé of Piers Morgan, who edited the tabloid at the time – commissioned a notorious private detective agency called Southern Investigations to target the Queen’s cousin in 1999, it is claimed.
Mr Jones has since been promoted through the ranks by publishers Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN), first becoming Deputy Editor of stablemate The People, before going on to edit the Sunday Mirror.
He took his current role when owners Trinity Mirror bought The Express in 2018 – rebranding itself Reach plc in the process – and put Mr Jones in charge of the 119-year-old title and its weekend sister edition.
The explosive new claims appear in documents deployed by alleged victims of illegal journalism by MGN Ltd – a subsidiary of Britain’s biggest newspaper publisher Reach – whose board of directors also engaged in a cover up of wrongdoing, according to the document.
MGN has yet to plead its defence to the detailed claims – among which are allegations it fraudulently concealed more than a decade of wholesale criminal news-gathering at its national newspapers – but It denies a corporate cover-up, with a trial of the facts scheduled for January 2021.
The Prince Michael allegations relate to two Daily Mirror stories from January 1999 that revealed details of the Queen’s first cousin’s overdraft and lending with Royal bankers Coutts & Co.
The highly confidential financial data was allegedly ‘blagged’ – fraudulently obtained by deception – by Southern Investigations at the behest of Mr Jones, the then Chief Reporter of the Daily Mirror.
Later that year, anti-corruption police, in an operation called Two Bridges, wiretapped Southern’s owner, Jonathan Rees, telling Mr Jones some of the services he was regularly commissioning were illegal.
HEADLINED “Prince’s Bank Crisis”, Gary Jones and Oonagh Blackman – Piers Morgan’s former ‘Special Projects Editor’ – wrote a front-page article allegedly based on Prince Michael’s stolen Coutts bank account data.
Ms Blackman went on to become the influential left-leaning paper’s Political Editor, before working for Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Shaun Woodward MP, in a sensitive role.
The piece included unequivocal denials from the royal, who has often appeared alongside the Queen at state events such as Trooping the Colour, and he later won out-of-court damages and a printed apology from MGN.
MGN’s decision to pay damages is key to claims its senior executives – including former Group Legal Director Paul Vickers and his deputy Marcus Partington, the Head of the Editorial Legal Department at the time – knew the story was based on illegally-acquired information, according to barrister David Sherborne, who is acting for the Claimants in the long-running Mirror phone-hacking litigation.
It is the latest claim implicating Mr Jones – a trusted lieutenant of then editor Piers Morgan, now one of ITV’s most prominent hosts – in the use of “dark arts” and his links to Southern Investigations and its co-owner Jonathan Rees.
Southern Investigations became notorious when one of its partners – Daniel Morgan – was murdered in March 1987 in the UK’s most investigated unsolved killing.
Daniel Morgan’s family maintain the private eye was poised to expose corruption within the Metropolitan Police when he was attacked with an axe in a pub car park in Sydenham, south east London.
Shortly after The Mirror paid the company to steal the documents, both owners were in prison – one for planting drugs on a woman fighting a custody battle with a client, and the other for possessing child porn images on his computer.
In a document deployed at the High Court, Mr Sherborne – who is also acting for Prince Harry in his hacking claim against MGN – states: “[We] will refer to the fact that the newspaper was sufficiently confident in its story that it published it notwithstanding the fact, as it boasted in the article itself, that ‘Prince Michael denied yesterday owing Coutts money’.
“In fact, this story was obtained illegally through the use by Mr Jones of private investigators Jonathan Rees and Southern Investigations.
“Mr Rees provided him with the numbers of three of the Prince’s company’s bank accounts, and had commissioned a known blagger (who…was later convicted of data theft offences) called John Gunning to blag private financial information from the bank.
“Prince Michael then made a legal claim against MGN in relation to the story. As a result, in about April 1999, MGN’s Legal Department sought confirmation through Mr Jones as to how Southern Investigations had obtained the information about the Prince’s bank account and that it had been done by lawful means.
“Shortly after, MGN settled the claim and agreed to publish an apology to Prince Michael.
“In the circumstances, pending further disclosure, the Claimants will contend that the MGN Legal Department and the Board (which included Mr Partington and Mr Vickers) was or must have been made aware that private financial information had been unlawfully obtained by Southern Investigations and that the claim could not be defended by MGN since it could not rely upon or reveal this ‘source’ of information.”
The first story about Prince Michael’s custom with one of Britain’s oldest and most famous private banks was printed on January 26, 1999.
It claimed the Prince had incurred an unauthorised £220,000 overdraft with Coutts through his business Cantium Services and was £2.5million in debt to the exclusive organisation, which requires customers to have a minimum £1m in investable assets.
A follow-up the next day, again written by Mr Jones and Ms Blackman, told how he had been given five years to clear it.
The incident raises questions about how much MGN’s board of directors knew of criminality at their papers.
The allegations – which are likely to form part of her son Prince Harry’s own phone hacking court action against MGN – tell how the private letters of Major James Hewitt, with whom the Princess had a relationship between 1986 and 1991, were allegedly stolen from his home, in a plan overseen by Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan, in 1998.
Former America’s Got Talent judge and CNN presenter Mr Morgan, 55 on Monday, who now fronts ITV’s Good Morning Britain as well as writing a column for the Mail on Sunday, was interviewed alongside one of MGN’s lawyers by police at the time about the burglary.
It is alleged this means the MGN board of directors knew of apparent criminality inside the company.
MGN has yet to respond to any of the allegations – detailed in a ‘generic case’ alleging its board ‘fraudulently concealed’ knowledge of lawbreaking – being made the 71 claimants currently suing MGN for ‘Unlawful Information Gathering’, including phone-hacking.
We will report on their side of the case, when it is submitted, in a future article on this developing story.