Murdoch papers betrayed more journalist sources to police, hacking judge told

27 Nov. 2020

  • NEWS Group Newspapers revealed the identities of highly sensitive journalistic sources to police investigating phone hacking, the High Court in London heard
  • IT IS the second separate occasion in which the tabloid publisher has given up supposedly sacred confidential sources to the police, and;
  • NOW a judge has intervened to ensure NGN properly protects sources before it hands over 12,000 pages of new evidence to Claimants including Prince Harry

Justice: The Royal Courts in London (c) Creative Commons

RUPERT Murdoch’s newspapers handed over the identity of “potentially a whole load” of confidential journalistic sources to the Metropolitan Police, the phone hacking case in London has heard.

Mr Justice Mann, one of Britain’s leading privacy and media judges, drew the startling admission from News Group Newspapers’ Barrister Anthony Hudson QC during legal argument about the disclosure of documents from a secure company documents archive.

Among them are 28 lever arch files of evidence allegedly relevant to claims of criminal newsgathering which the company collated for and handed over to detectives of Scotland Yard’s Operation Weeting in 2012, the High Court in London was told on Thursday.

There is some force in that thesis yes, my Lord

Anthony Hudson QC for News Group Newspapers

Lawyers for 65 Claimants, including Prince Harry, who allege their personal information was stolen, misused, and exploited for tabloid stories, are now asking to see the files, but NGN resisted by citing examples of confidential sources who would be revealed among their pages.

However, Justice Mann pointed out that Mr Hudson’s plea to protect the sources was at odds with the approach Rupert Murdoch’s powerful news publishers adopted to the same material in 2012, when facing a criminal investigation.

The judge said: “The thesis is that you handed over potentially a whole load of confidential sources to the Metropolitan Police.”

Looking clearly pained by observation, Mr Hudson admitted: “There is some force in that thesis yes, my Lord.”

Claimant: Prince Harry (c) PA

He added: “Why that was back in 2011/ 2012 I cannot speculate at this point, whether that happened intentionally or inadvertently, or whether it was acceptable in the context of providing it to the MPS, but it’s a very different question identifying the source to the Claimants.”

The point is an awkward one for the Murdoch company, which employs hundreds of journalists whose ability to operate often depends upon assurances of confidentiality for their sources, the betrayal of which is considered a cardinal sin among the profession.

It was already known that News International – NGN’s parent company – had deliberately handed over emails between journalists and police officers to the Operation Elveden anti-corruption investigation, also in 2012, in a move that industry trade journal Press Gazette later said cast “a shadow over the reputation of British journalism”.

I should rule that these documents should be handed over without any further relevance test… they should be handed over en-masse

— Managing Judge Mr Justice Mann

At the time, the company had set up a review of its business activities in order to act as an assisting suspect in allegations of widespread newsroom criminality, so that it could stave off the prospect of corporate prosecutions for phone hacking and Perverting the Course of Justice.

The decision was taken to protect the corporation by co-operating with the police, even to the extent of voluntarily shopping their police sources and other public officials, dozens of whom were subsequently jailed for misconduct in a public office in accepting improper payment, and dozens more journalists were arrested.

Almost all the newspaper executives who authorised the payments were acquitted.

In 2015 prosecutors considered and rejected potential corporate charges, because it was claimed they could not prove involvement of someone with the “controlling mind or will” of the company for either charge.

On Thursday, Justice Mann ordered NGN to this time conduct a test for confidential sources before it re-discloses the Weeting files, many of which had been stored among physical records in its secretive main archive in Enfield, north London, and to which the Claimants are seeking wider access.

Weeting detectives identified a sample section of 452 boxes from 22,500 Enfield archive boxes filled with years of hard-copy editorial and legal material from The Sun and News of the World.

These boxes were then reviewed by NGN’s former lawyers Linklaters, which applied relevance tests to identify 12,000 pages of interest to police, which make up the 28 files now in question.

Justice Mann said: “I should rule that these documents should be handed over without any further relevance test.

“The claimants do not object to having the 12,000 documents dumped on them. They should be handed over en-masse.”

He also concluded that legal privilege – a concept which allows lawyers to keep their advice private – must have been waived at an earlier stage (because the company allowed detectives to view the material without restricting the waiver to criminal proceedings).

Therefore, he added: “I do not consider that the Defendants should be entitled to carry out a privilege assessment.

NGN also wanted to ‘filter’ out any documents that have been disclosed previously to the High Court in this long-running litigation. 

However, Justice Mann concluded that he did not want this to cause any undue delay or cost.

He said: “I propose to save the defendants some money…and the whole bundle should be handed over whether or not the documents have been handed over before.”

On the point of confidential sources, the judge did permit NGN to carry out extra checks.

He said: “I should allow the Defendants to review the documents… the position is slightly different with confidential sources,” and: “they should be protected by further review.”

The case continues…