Hacking: Mirror pays £12m to shut down ‘board crimes’ trial… for now

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  • MIRROR Group Newspapers (MGN) has paid off 18 phone hacking Claimants to avoid a January trial where its former board was to be accused of covering up 12 years of newsroom crimes

Justice delayed: The Royal Courts of Justice, The Strand, London (c) Creative Commons

By Dan Evans
Founding Editor

MIRROR Group Newspapers has ‘opened the chequebook’ to avoid a phone hacking trial in which its own Board is sensationally accused of lies and concealment of wrongdoing – days after Byline Investigates revealed its top lawyer gave allegedly “untrue” evidence to Anti-Corruption cops.

Britain’s biggest newspaper publisher moved decisively this week to pay off Claimants Chantelle Houghton, John Leslie, Martine McCutcheon, and Roxanne Pallett, at an estimated cost of £5m in damages and legal fees, and after publicly insisting for two years it wanted to go to trial.

The extraordinary reversal comes as it can also be revealed the news giant spent a further estimated £7m in the last 40 days settling 14 other cases eligible to be heard in a six-week January trial at which its Board would face claims it fraudulently concealed newsroom criminality for 12 years.

How on Earth is the Board going to explain this disastrous strategy to their shareholders and account to them for it?

Paul Wragg, Professor of Media Law, University of Leeds

Byline Investigates understands that presiding judge Mr Justice Mann has been informed of the settlements, although there has yet to be any official application to vacate the trial dates, and – as this story was published – the plc had still yet to inform shareholders with an announcement to the London Stock Exchange.

Commenting on the developments, Paul Wragg, Professor of Media Law at Leeds University, said: “This is humiliating for Mirror Group Newspapers and begs questions about the full extent of its complicity as a corporation in illegal phone hacking and other crimes.

“The company fought hard for two years to take its accusers to the proving ground of a trial, so to suddenly open the chequebook and make these significant settlements is extraordinary.

Comment: Paul Wragg, Professor of Media Law at the University of Leeds (c) University of Leeds

“How on Earth is the Board going to explain this disastrous strategy to their shareholders and account to them for it?”

Details of the settlements, whose other recipients include David Walliams, Ray Winstone (pictured below) and Antony Cotton, are undisclosed, but Byline Investigates understands the total sum of damages and Claimants’ costs to be around £12m excluding MGN’s own legal bills, which will add several million pounds more.

Cases settled: Entertainer and author David Walliams and (r) actor Ray Winstone (c) PA

MGN’s volte face comes after we told last Thursday how the £1m-a-year lawyer driving the tactical response to the ‘Unlawful Information Gathering’ scandal engulfing the company is himself accused at the heart of an alleged Board-level cover up of those activities.

We revealed how the-now Group Legal Director Marcus Partington allegedly gave “blatantly untrue” evidence to Anti-Corruption detectives probing the trade in illegal information between the Sunday Mirror and murder-linked private investigators in 1999.

Partington intervened to give the tabloid a clean bill of financial health after a reporter was arrested over Scotland Yard police corruption, but the evidence he gave detectives has allegedly been undermined – 21 years later – by newly disclosed invoices and internal remittance documents.

Questions: Former group legal director Paul Vickers and (inset) Marcus Partington (c) Reach plc/ BBC

The serious allegations would have been tested in January alongside 22 others which, the Claimants say, show Partington and his former boss and predecessor Paul Vickers (pictured above) – who was a member of the Board – knew of and failed to stop illegal newsgathering at The Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and The People tabloids. 

Prof Wragg added: “The trial in January was a chance for the public to find out the truth about just how systemic the criminal behaviour was at MGN and how far up the company ladder it went.

“It shows that the second part of the Leveson Inquiry [into Press abuse and criminality] is needed now more urgently than ever.” 

Expensive and dramatic as it is, MGN’s move does not end its prospects of facing trial for an alleged corporate conspiracy to fraudulently conceal industrial scale criminal behaviour in its newsrooms from police and shareholders between 1999 and 2011.

Cases settled: Actor Martine McCutcheon (main) reality star Chantelle Houghton (top l), actor Roxanne Pallet (bottom l) (c) PA

Some 50 further phone hacking claims remain on the register and in progress and will likely be augmented by a persistent stream of new actions from alleged victims who say their personal information was stolen and misused.

While the Claimants’ allegations and MGN’s and the Board’s response, where they do not admit and/or they deny the allegations, will not now be subject to the findings of the Court in January, another trial will be arranged and MGN will find itself in the same position in due course.

Prince Harry is among those remaining Claimants, as we first revealed in October 2019. Given the role of the tabloids in his personal family history, the Prince is considered a strong candidate to take the company all the way to a future trial in the Mirror Newspaper Hacking Litigation (MNHL).

Return ticket: Prince Harry (r) will be represented by barrister David Sherborne (l) in the next Mirror Group trial (c) PA

The long-serving Partington is a recurring figure at the centre of the Case against the Board, which is framed around a series of incidents that, on the Claimants’ arguments, prove to a civil standard that newsroom crimes were concealed – allegations the company hotly denied in its formal Defence for the much-anticipated, but now abandoned, trial.

The company had yet to make a statement to the London Stock Exchange, on which its shares were trading at 165p as this story was published, but has in the past put out regular trading updates about the effect of the litigation on the share price and finances of the company.

A dramatic example was in the autumn of 2014, at the start of a hacking litigation that has now entered its fourth wave of Claimants and cost at least £100m, when MGN suddenly changed their case and for the first time admitted that they had been hacking, and had settled cases as a result.

That was notable because on that occasion the markets – which at the time fell 1.24% on the news – were informed even before the court.

Other examples where market statements were made include when the first hacking cases went to trial in 2015, when MGN lost that trial, when MGN tried to appeal against the trial result and lost, and when MGN tried to apply to the Supreme Court, and were denied permission.

  • The cases continue…