Mirror Group held ‘over a barrel’ in unfair dismissal case by reporter’s threats to kiss ‘n’ tell on company criminality, legal document says

  • MIRROR Group Newspapers (MGN) paid thousands of pounds’ compensation to a former reporter in 2007 after he threatened to expose widespread illegal newsgathering at the publisher, legal papers reveal
  • THE JOURNALIST had been fired for an unrelated matter of gross misconduct in 2006, but received a five-figure sum just as he was poised to expose a culture of crime in the company’s national newsrooms in a public employment tribunal
  • FORMER Mirror Group lawyer Marcus Partington is believed to have told his Board-member boss Paul Vickers in an advice note that the PLC was “over a barrel” and urged them to settle David Brown’s employment case
  • MGN has repeatedly denied in court that its Legal Department and Board of Directors at the time turned a blind eye to criminal practices on its national titles from as early as 1999 and as late as 2011, as;
  • THOUSANDS of people allegedly fell victim to illegal private investigations and voicemail interception by MGN journalists as a result of the company’s alleged inaction
Close shot of Daily Mirror newspaper UK (Alamy)

By Dan Evans, Founding Editor

LEGAL advice has been revealed allegedly showing a top Mirror Group Newspapers lawyer and a board director knew of industrial scale phone hacking and data theft practices at its national titles for years without acting to stop them, Byline Investigates can report.

MGN’s former in-house lawyer Marcus Partington is believed to have sent the formal advice in 2007 to former Group Legal Director Paul Vickers – a Board member at the time – in response to an unfair dismissal claim by former MGN reporter David Brown.

Marcus Partington, MGN’s Former in-house lawyer.

Mr Brown had been fired from his job as a reporter for The People tabloid in 2006 after 11 years’ service over the misuse of company information.

A year later, after the hacking scandal at the News of the World came to light, he responded with an unfair dismissal claim saying Mirror Group knew about its own use of voicemail interception and illegal private investigators.

There is no suggestion Mr Brown himself was involved in such activities.

And Mr Partington, whom MGN insists was unaware of phone hacking until ‘after’ October 2010, with Mr Vickers allegedly unaware of ‘any evidence’ until December 2013, allegedly told his boss to pay damages to the journalist to keep the claims out of a public tribunal with the advice: “He’s got us over a barrel – settle”.

The so-called “Partington Comment”

The so-called ‘Partington Comment’ – which is ‘struck-through’ but perfectly legible in red ink – appears twice in documents put into the public record on March 25 this year by external lawyers acting for MGN and its parent company Reach PLC.

A source told Byline Investigates: “This now raises the persistent question of whether, as a public limited company, Trinity Mirror [the old name for Reach PLC] always knew their papers had relied on criminal newsgathering to generate sales and therefore dividends for share-holders.

“That would suggest MGN as a corporate entity allowed thousands of people to have their intimate personal information, from voicemail messages and itemised phone bills, to sensitive financial and medical matters, to be exploited for profit by Mirror Group journalists.

“It would also suggest that the judge-led Leveson Inquiry into Press practices was given inaccurate information by a number of important MGN employees in 2011 and 2012 when they said there was ‘no evidence’ of hacking at its titles The Mirror, The Sunday Mirror, and The People.”

MGN, which was forced to “resile” from public denials of wrongdoing at its papers in 2014 after a landmark phone hacking case heard overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and has since paid “a mint” to victims in damages and costs, continue to insist its Board of Directors at the time did not conceal knowledge of wrongdoing.

However, it has not allowed a trial of the facts to go ahead, preferring instead to settle every claim out of court before the evidence can be tested and findings made.

Royal Courts of Justice (David Castor cc 3.0)

David Brown brought his unfair dismissal claim in May 2007, with the intention of taking MGN to a public tribunal, having been fired from The People for gross misconduct for procuring stories that belonged to sister title The Daily Mirror but which were not slated to be published.

His case was that his dismissal was inconsistent with the way “far worse” behaviour of other employees, specifically the use of phone hacking and private investigators to steal the confidential information of people the papers’ editors were interested in, went unpunished.

Marcus Partington was the in-house lawyer dealing with the Brown employment claim at the time. He reported directly to Group Legal Director, company secretary, and Board member Paul Vickers, with whom he held an explicit “no surprises” policy of professional openness.

MGN’s initial formal response in the Employment Tribunal proceedings was that Brown’s case was entirely without foundation, and that he had been dismissed fairly.

However, that position changed once the ‘Brown Statement’ had been deployed, with five-figure sum of compensation hastily paid to him.

In the May 16, 2007, ‘Brown Statement’ he discussed the very phone hacking his employers later denied seeing evidence of so vehemently.

He recounted being sent to confront someone who was suspected of being the new lover of a TV presenter “on the basis of information being gleaned from her mobile phone”, explaining that “this was done by “screwing” or “tapping [her] phone’s message bank”.

He went on to list other celebrities who were regularly targeted, and of one couple said that “associates of [theirs] had their phone message banks monitored to find out what the celebrity couple were doing”.

He stated that: “The People regularly used information from “screwed” mobile phones, where private citizens’ mobile phone numbers were hacked into for personal information.”

Towards the end of his statement Mr Brown noted the arrest of Clive Goodman, an editor at rival title The News of the World, in August 2006 on phone hacking charges.

Brown said that shortly afterward “[the head of resources] contacted executives on Trinity Mirror’s national titles to tell them that if they were asked by other newspapers or trade publications whether they had used information from “screwed” mobile phones, they should deny it… [the] advice indicates that a major media PLC was not only allowing its staff to carry out illegal activity by at best turning a blind eye to it, but also taking part in organised cover-up of that activity.”

It was on one copy of the Brown Statement that Partington made his note offering the ‘over a barrel’ metaphor.

MGN continues to face a slew of claims from its alleged victims, with a trial presently set for Spring 2023, at which the evidence of the alleged Board-level cover up is, at the time of writing, set to come before Mr Justice Fancourt, the Mirror Newspapers Hacking Litigation Managing Judge at the Royal Courts of Justice in London.

  • Transparency statement:

The Author of this article is a former journalist for MGN and has given evidence in support of the Claimants in the Mirror Hacking Litigation

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