Thursday, July 09, 2009

Murdoch papers paid £1m to gag phone-hacking victims.

This is unbelievable.

Rupert Murdoch's News Group News­papers has paid out more than £1m to settle legal cases that threatened to reveal evidence of his journalists' repeated involvement in the use of criminal methods to get stories.

The payments secured secrecy over out-of-court settlements in three cases that threatened to expose evidence of Murdoch journalists using private investigators who illegally hacked into the mobile phone messages of numerous public ­figures to gain unlawful access to confidential personal data, including tax records, social security files, bank statements and itemised phone bills. Cabinet ministers, MPs, actors and sports stars were all targets of the private investigators.

So, the News of the World, the very paper which complained when ordered to pay Max Moseley damages for secretly filming him with prostitutes, and stated that "It is not for the powerful and the influential to run to the courts to gag newspapers from publishing stories that are TRUE," it said. "This is all about the public's right to know."

Even as they printed those words lawyers and senior executives from News International's subsidiary News Group were preparing to run to court to gag Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, who was suing the News of the World for hacking into his mobile phone records. By paying Taylor around £400,000 in damages to secure his silence the News Group lawyers were assuring that the public never heard about any of this.

The Guardian are today revealing the whole story and talking about the implications this has for David Cameron and others.

David Cameron's chief press adviser, Andy Coulson, was editor of the News of the World at the time of this activity.

The Guardian raises some of the difficult questions which arise out of this and the people who might have to answer these questions:

• Conservative leader David Cameron's director of communications, Andy Coulson, who was deputy editor and then editor of the News of the World when, the suppressed evidence shows, journalists for whom he was responsible were engaging in hundreds of apparently illegal acts.

• Murdoch executives who, albeit in good faith, misled a parliamentary select committee, the Press Complaints Commission and the public.

• The Metropolitan police, which did not alert all those whose phones were targeted, and the Crown Prosecution Service, which did not pursue all possible charges against News Group personnel.

• The Press Complaints Commission, which claimed to have conducted an investigation, but failed to uncover any evidence of illegal activity.

We all remember that Clive Goodman of the News of the World was jailed in January 2007 for illegally tapping into the phones of three of the royal staff, but we all imagined that this was one zealous reporter taking things too far.

The story in the Guardian talks of "two or three thousand" mobiles being illegally hacked into.

By revealing this today the Guardian are surely making it impossible for there not to be some kind of investigation into what went on here.

News International has always maintained it had no knowledge of phone hacking by anybody acting on its behalf.

Murdoch told Bloomberg news last night that he knew nothing about the payments. "If that had happened I would know about it," he said.

A private investigator who had worked for News Group, Glenn Mulcaire, was also jailed in January 2007. He admitted hacking into the phones of five other targets, including the chief ­executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, Gordon Taylor. Among the phones he hacked were those of the Lib Dem MP Simon Hughes, celebrity PR Max Clifford, model Elle MacPherson and football agent Sky Andrew. News Group denied all knowledge of the hacking, but Taylor last year sued them on the basis that they must have known about it.

In documents initially submitted to the high court, News Group executives said the company had not been involved in any way in Mulcaire's hacking of Taylor's phone. They denied keeping any recording or notes of intercepted messages. But, at the request of Taylor's lawyers, the court ordered the production of detailed evidence from Scotland Yard's inquiry in the Goodman case, and from an inquiry by the information commissioner into journalists who dishonestly obtain confidential personal records.

The Scotland Yard files included paperwork which revealed that, contrary to News Group's denial, Mulcaire had provided a recording of the messages on Taylor's phone to a News of the World journalist who had transcribed them and emailed them to a senior reporter, and that a News of the World executive had offered Mulcaire a substantial bonus for a story specifically related to the intercepted messages.

The News Group will have paid these monies whilst being very clear that they not admit any guilt or accept any liability by doing so.

And it's no wonder. One of their own has already been jailed for this kind of activity. The Guardian story today is talking about between two and three thousand similar offences.

The question now is what our politicians will do about this. Will Brown dare run the risk of annoying Murdoch by doing what should be done here and ordering an investigation? Or will it be allowed to stand that the rich and the powerful can run to court and pay to silence those whom they have allegedly illegally bugged?

Andrew Neil, a former Murdoch employee and editor of The Sunday Times, expressed his horror at the Guardian's revelations:

Neil said: "I think it is one of the most significant media stories of modern times. It suggests that rather than being a one off journalist or rogue private investigator, it was systemic throughout the News of the World, and to a lesser extent the Sun.

"Particularly in the News of the World, this was a newsroom out of control … Everyone who knows the News of the World, everybody knows this was going on. But it did no good to talk about it. One News of the World journalist said to me … it was dangerous to talk about it."

Neil said he saw no public interest in the methods used against any of the politicians or celebrities targeted by the Murdoch owned newspapers: "It is illegal. That doesn't mean it should never be done, you may have a public interest defence. But that's not the case in any of this, it was a fishing expedition; let's listen to who we can. It was corrupt."

"If you imagine there was something of real major importance, you could have a public interest defence. But breaking into Gwyneth Paltrow's voicemail after she's just had a baby is not in the public interest. I'm at a loss to know what the public interest might be."

He also said the police had to explain why they failed to tell top politicians that their phones had been hacked into.

Neil said the story raised serious questions for Scotland Yard, top prosecutors and for judges: "It's not just a media story, it raises serious questions about the police.

"The police learn that the deputy prime minister has had his mobile phone compromised and they don't tell him. I just don't understand that.

"The police investigation unearthed evidence of clear wrongdoing and the Crown Prosecution Service does nothing."

He added: "The court is faced with evidence of conspiracy and systemic illegal actions and agrees to seal the evidence. All that is completely wrong, I just don't understand it."

This story raises far too many questions for it to be simply swept under the carpet. And all of the questions which Andrew Neil raises - regarding the police and the courts - deserve to be answered.

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