By Brian Cathcart
PRINCE HARRY today won £140,600 in damages from the publishers of the Mirror newspapers in a court judgment that also found senior executives and editors at the company knew about and concealed phone hacking and other unlawful information gathering practices.
Mr Justice Fancourt made explicit findings that the group’s former chief executive, Sly Bailey, its onetime legal director, Paul Vickers, and its former chief in-house lawyer, Marcus Partington, all knew that the paper’s journalists were acting illegally, even though they claimed otherwise.
He also set out a wealth of evidence that Piers Morgan knew about illegal phone hacking and – contrary to the repeated claims of the former Daily Mirror editor – that he published articles relying on it. The judge repeatedly made clear that he accepted this evidence was true.
Overall, the outcome of only the second hacking case to come to full trial is another disaster for the company (now renamed Reach plc), showing that illegal practices went on far longer than previously admitted and that it was known about up to, but importantly not including, board level.
For Prince Harry it was an important first victory in a series of cases he his bringing against British newspaper groups. While the damages were lower than the £440,000 he had asked for, and while only half of the specific claims of unlawful activity he made were upheld, his fundamental claim that the group’s journalists violated his privacy on multiple occasions was amply vindicated.
Three other claimants were joined with him in a test case relating to no fewer than 100 pending claims against the Mirror papers, and their fortunes were mixed. Two, Nikki Sanderson and Fiona Wightman, were told their claims had come too late to be considered, while the fourth, Coronation Street actor Michael Turner, received damages of £31,650.
Today’s ruling painted a picture of a large national newspaper company that was rotten to its core, with people at the highest executive levels tolerating and even encouraging intrusive activities that were known to be illegal while denying it all to the outside world.
Questions will have to be asked over whether the police and the Crown Prosecution Service should look into these matters again, and whether evidence given under oath to the 2011-12 Leveson Inquiry by Bailey, Vickers, Morgan and others was perjured.
Piers Morgan’s involvement is returned to repeatedly in the 386-page judgment. Again and again the judge summarises witness evidence against Morgan and again and again he concludes that he finds the witness reliable or that no evidence had been produced to contradict what was alleged.
The judge recounted, for example, the allegation of writer Omid Scobie that he witnessed Morgan discussing information relating to Kylie Minogue that derived from hacking. He concluded: ‘I accept what he said about Mr Morgan’s involvement …’
This case and judgment follow a trend in the so-called hacking litigation, which is the increasing prominence in the claims of illegal activities other than voicemail interception. It has long been known that newspapers commissioned private investigators to engage in what the courts now call unlawful information gathering, stealing private information in a great variety of ways.
Invoices from private investigators now play a large part in claims against newspapers, which means that the dismissal of claims by Sanderson and Whitehouse that related exclusively to hacking is probably not the blow to litigants that it may seem. Many and possibly most cases are still likely to go forward on other grounds.
The judge’s rulings on the time periods in which illegal practices occurred are also relevant here. The Mirror group has admitted that these practices took place over seven years between 1999 and 2006; Mr Justice Fancourt now says the true picture is that they went on for 16 years, from 1995 to 2011.
Indeed the judge has declared that they continued even during the Leveson Inquiry into press standards, while Bailey, Vickers, Morgan and others were swearing under oath that their papers were clean. Pending claims relating to the additional years can now proceed, and more are likely to arise.