By Brian Cathcart
WHAT A WEEK for Rupert Murdoch. Seven days ago his US Fox News organisation paid $787.5 million to settle a libel claim, and now we learn that his UK company paid ‘a very large sum’ to the heir to the British throne to settle a phone hacking claim.
That Prince William’s phone had been hacked by the News of the World was well known, but while many suspected there might have been a financial settlement, that was never announced or confirmed – and the Murdoch organisation clearly preferred it that way.
Now the cover is blown and once again we have headline evidence of the kind of journalistic operation that is run by the 92-year-old billionaire: it does dreadful things, it covers them up and when cornered it buys its way out.
In the US, Murdoch journalists told lies that assisted an attempted coup d’état. In the UK, Murdoch journalists, illegally and for well over a decade, tapped into the mobile voicemails of everyone who was in the news – up to and including very senior members of the royal family.
It’s an ugly picture, lending weight to the view that Murdoch is more like a Mafia boss than a person who is, in the legal phrase, ‘fit and proper’ to oversee a news media organisation.
And if Prince William’s financial settlement has finally become public now, three years on, Murdoch has only his own subordinates to blame. For it was lawyers acting for his UK daily the Sun who put Prince Harry in a position where, the Prince’s lawyers say, he had no choice but to reveal it.
Fighting off claims by Prince Harry and the actor Hugh Grant that the Sun hacked their phones just as the News of the World had done, the paper went to court in London today to argue, among other things, that the two men’s claims have been made too late and are legally ‘out of time’.
As a result, his lawyers say, Prince Harry had no choice but to open a can of worms relating to the royal family and the Murdoch corporation – of which his brother William’s 2020 settlement represents just one worm, albeit a fat one.
Prince Harry’s lawyers had previously referred in court documents to a ‘secret arrangement’ between the Palace and the Murdoch management, but today’s revelations went further, describing a deal under which the royals agreed to delay making claims in exchange for being spared embarrassment. The documents also cited years of meetings and correspondence between very senior figures on both sides.
Robert Thomson, CEO of Murdoch global operation, NewsCorp, met Sir Christopher Geidt, private secretary to Queen Elizabeth, to discuss the deal. Rebekah Brooks, CEO of Murdoch’s News UK, was also involved in exchanges, while according to Prince Harry’s case documents the whole arrangement was ‘authorised’ by the late Queen herself.
This relationship between the Palace and a news organisation that had admitted large-scale phone hacking appears to have been one that both sides preferred to keep confidential.
In its defence, lawyers for the Sun don’t acknowledge any special arrangement and will argue in court that Prince Harry could have made a claim much earlier under a confidential settlement scheme set up by the Murdoch company that was open to anyone with a case.
The debate in court over the next three days before Mr Justice Fancourt is more general and requires the Sun’s lawyers to engage in an exercise many would consider perverse. They have begun arguing that it should have been obvious years ago to both claimants – the prince and Grant – that they might have had a hackikng case against the Sun, and to make that point they are trying to pile up evidence against their own client going back to 2006.
Since the Sun denies all phone hacking – despite having paid settlements to a number of people who have sued – if the present blocking bid fails and the case goes to trial (pencilled in for January 2024), counsel for the Sun will then presumably find themselves arguing something close to the opposite.