There was “extensive” phone hacking by Mirror Group Newspapers from at least 1998 until 2011, “even to some extent” during the Leveson Inquiry into media standards, a High Court judge has ruled following a trial featuring Prince Harry.
The judge found that the Duke of Sussex’s phone was probably hacked “to a modest extent” by Mirror Group Newspapers from about the end of 2003 to April 2009 and awarded him £140,600 in damages.
Mr Justice Fancourt said part of the sum was intended to “compensate the Duke fully for the distress that he suffered as a result of the unlawful activity directed at him and those close to him.
“I recognise that Mirror Group was not responsible for all the unlawful activity that was directed at the Duke, and that a good deal of the oppressive behaviour of the Press towards the Duke over the years was not unlawful at all. Mirror Group therefore only played a small part in everything that the Duke suffered and the award of damages on this ground is therefore modest.”
The Duke of Sussex had claimed journalists at the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and Sunday People publisher were linked to methods including phone hacking, so-called “blagging” or gaining information by deception, and use of private investigators for unlawful activities.
Mr Justice Fancourt found that 15 out of 33 articles brought as part of Harry’s case were the product of phone-hacking.
The judge said: “There was a tendency for the Duke in his evidence to assume that everything published was the product of voicemail interception because phone hacking was rife within Mirror Group at the time. But phone hacking was not the only journalistic tool at the time, and his claims in relation to the other 18 articles did not stand up to careful analysis.”
Judgment gives Mirror Group Newspapers ‘necessary clarity to move forward’
The judge added aggravated damages to Harry’s total sum “to reflect the particular hurt and sense of outrage that the Duke feels because two directors of Trinity Mirror plc, to whom the board had delegated day-to-day responsibility for such matters, knew about the illegal activity that was going at their newspapers and could and should have put a stop to it.
“Instead of doing so, they turned a blind eye to what was going on, and positively concealed it. Had the illegal conduct been stopped, the misuse of the Duke’s private information would have ended much sooner.”
An MGN spokesperson said: “We welcome today’s judgment that gives the business the necessary clarity to move forward from events that took place many years ago.
“Where historical wrongdoing took place, we apologise unreservedly, have taken full responsibility and paid appropriate compensation.”
Reading a statement on the Duke of Sussex’s behalf outside the High Court on Friday morning, his lawyer David Sherborne said: “Today is a great day for truth, as well as accountability.
“The court has ruled that unlawful and criminal activities were carried out at all three Mirror Group newspaper titles – the Mirror, the Sunday Mirror and the People – on a habitual and widespread basis for over more than a decade.
“I’d like to thank my legal team for so successfully dismantling the sworn testimony of Mirror Group’s senior executives, legal department and journalists who at least turned up, unlike their colleagues, who were perhaps too afraid to do so.
“This case is not just about hacking – it is about a systemic practice of unlawful and appalling behaviour, followed by cover-ups and destruction of evidence, the shocking scale of which can only be revealed through these proceedings.”
Unlawful information gathering ‘widespread’ from 1996
Overall Mr Justice Fancourt found that unlawful information gathering was “widespread” at the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and Sunday People from 1996 onwards, with some unlawful activity starting in 1995, while phone-hacking began in 1996 and became “widespread and habitual” from 1998.
Between 2006 and 2011, he said, unlawful information gathering “remained extensive throughout” while phone-hacking “remained an important tool for the kind of journalism that was being practised” at the Mirror titles “even to some extent during the Leveson Inquiry” which began in 2011.
He added: “The phone hacking was still extensive during those years, but it was done in a more controlled way, and not done as habitually…”
Harry’s case was heard alongside similar claims by actor Michael Turner, who is known professionally as Michael Le Vell and best known for playing Kevin Webster in Coronation Street, actress Nikki Sanderson, and comedian Paul Whitehouse’s ex-wife Fiona Wightman. Their claims cover a period as early as 1991 until at least 2011.
However Mr Justice Fancourt said Turner’s case was “proved only to a limited extent” and that parts of it were “exceedingly trivial”.
But phone-hacking or other unlawful information gathering was proved for four articles dating from after his 2011 arrest on suspicion of a sexual offence, of which he was later acquitted, with two additional invoices showing unlawful information gathering. He was therefore awarded £31,650 in damages.
The claims of Sanderson and Wightman were dismissed on limitation grounds, meaning they both could reasonably have found out by the end of October 2014 that they had a “worthwhile” claim against MGN and so the time for them to make a claim expired six years after that date and they filed their cases too late.
In a statement to shareholders, parent company Reach said this finding meant “all claims issued after 31 October 2020 are now likely to be dismissed other than where exceptional circumstances apply”.
The current provision for historical legal claims at Reach is £45.4m, according to the latest half-year results, and the company said: “The impact of the judgment on legal limitation is expected to reduce the number of live claims, and substantially limit and bar all or most future claims. Full details will be reported in the full year results [on 5 March].”
Ex-CEO Sly Bailey ‘knew or turned a blind eye’ to hacking
The six-week trial took place between April and June. It heard former Trinity Mirror chief executive Sly Bailey tell the court she was “deeply regretful” and apologised about the activities that took place while she was chief executive, but that she had not believed there was enough evidence at the time to conduct an internal investigation.
In a witness statement, she said: “It has been alleged in these proceedings that senior executives of Trinity Mirror including myself knew or were aware of the widespread and habitual use of unlawful information-gathering activities from at least as early as 2002 and certainly by 2007.
“That allegation, so far as it relates to me, is untrue. I was not aware of such activities while I was chief executive.”
However the judge found that Bailey and group legal director Paul Vickers were the only two directors of Trinity Mirror and Mirror Group who knew about the phone-hacking going on at the newspapers before the end of 2011.
The judge said Vickers “certainly knew” about the hacking from about the end of 2003 “but quite possibly before then” while Bailey “knew or – what in law amounts to the same thing – turned a blind eye to it from about the end of 2006”.
“The likelihood of extensive illegal activity should have been investigated properly by Ms Bailey and Mr Vickers, at the latest in early 2007, but it never was,” the judge said.
“Instead, it was concealed from the board, from Parliament in 2007 and 2011, from the Leveson Inquiry, from shareholders, and from the public for years, and the extent of it was concealed from claimants in the Mirror Newspapers Hacking Litigation and even from the court at and before the trial in 2015.”
The company’s in-house lawyers knew about the use of phone-hacking and unlawful information gathering because of their involvement in “legalling” articles for publication, the judge added.
‘No doubt’ that editors knew about hacking but Piers Morgan issues denial
Mr Justice Fancourt also found that editors on the newspapers – who included Piers Morgan on the Daily Mirror between 1995 and 2004 – would have known about the hacking.
Journalist Omid Scobie, who has worked closely with Harry and his wife Meghan in the past, told the court that when he was a student he spent a week on desk of the Mirror’s 3am showbiz team where he overheard Morgan being told that information for a story about Kylie Minogue and her former boyfriend James Gooding had come from voicemails.
The judge said: “I found Mr Scobie to be a straightforward and reliable witness and I accept what he said about Mr Morgan’s involvement in the Minogue/Gooding story. No evidence was called by MGN to contradict it.”
The judge also accepted “without hesitation” the evidence of David Seymour, group political editor of the Daily Mirror between 1993 and 2007, who said Morgan knew his journalists were involved in hacking.
Former Sunday Mirror editor Tina Weaver had previously been implicated in a separate court case in hacking. Mr Justice Fancourt said Mark Thomas, her deputy editor from 2001 to 2003 before he moved to become editor of The People, was also implicated in the new trial.
The judge said: “…there is a vast quantity of payment records commissioned by journalists at The People. It is inherently likely that Mr Thomas knew what was happening at his newspaper.”
The judge said: “There can be no doubt, therefore, that the editors of the newspapers knew about the VMI [voicemail interception] and UIG [unlawful information gathering] and were in a position to tell Ms Bailey or the board about it, but they obviously did not do so.”
However Morgan said in a statement outside his home on Friday that he had “zero knowledge” of the single article published in his time as editor of the Daily Mirror which may have involved illegal information gathering.
Morgan said: “I had then and still have zero knowledge of how that particular story was gathered.
“I also want to reiterate, as I’ve consistently said for many years now, I’ve never hacked a phone or told anyone else to and nobody has provided any actual evidence to prove that I did.”
Morgan continued: “I wasn’t called as a witness – it’s important for people to know this – by either side in the case, nor was I asked to provide any statement. I would have very happily agreed to do either or both of those things had I been asked.
“Nor did I have a single conversation with any of the Mirror Group lawyers throughout the entire legal process.
“So I wasn’t able to respond to the many false allegations that were spewed about me in court by old foes of mine with an axe to grind,” he said, referring to Scobie and Alistair Campbell, “most of which, inexplicably, were not even challenged in my absence by the Mirror Group counsel.”
Now-Daily Express editor Gary Jones was also implicated in the judgment, with Mr Justice Fancourt saying it was “likely” that activities carried out by one firm including the “blagging” of Alistair Campbell’s mortgage information were “unlawful to the knowledge of those at MGN who were commissioning them, including in particular Mr Jones and Mr Thomas”.
Mr Justice Fancourt found that 11 private investigators and their associates were “used very substantially” by Mirror Group journalists and editors “in connection with extensive and habitual unlawful information gathering and phone hacking activities”.
A further 13 private investigators and their associates “did a significant amount of unlawful information gathering work for Mirror Group”, while five more did a smaller amount of work that appears to have involved unlawful activity.
The judge found that MGN spent more than £1m on private investigators each year between 2003 and 2005, with a further £924,615 in 2006, £604,571 in 2007, £636,475 in 2008, £543,690 in 2009, £427,084 in 2010 and £263,868. It totals around £9m over the period in question.
“These figures support a conclusion that there was only a brief pause in PI unlawful activity in 2006, following the arrests of [Glenn] Mulcaire and [Clive] Goodman, and that the level of activity reduced, year by year, but by no means came to an end, before the start of the Leveson Inquiry in 2011,” the judge said.
Harry: Ruling ‘vindicating and affirming’
Harry’s statement, read by Sherborne, also said he felt like he had “slayed dragons”.
“The court has in fact confirmed that all four claimants were subjected to voicemail interception and unlawful information gathering, but no one would have believed that was the case given how this trial was covered in the UK,” he said.
“My commitment to seeing this case through is based on my belief, in our need and collective right, to a free and honest press, and one which is properly accountable when necessary. That is what we need in Britain and across the globe. Anything else is poisoning the well for a profession we all depend on.
“The acts listed in this judgement are prime examples of what happens when the power of the press is abused. I respectfully call upon the authorities, the financial regulator, the stock market who were deliberately deceived by Mirror Group, and indeed the Metropolitan Police and prosecuting authorities, to do their duty for the British public and to investigate bringing charges against the company and those who have broken the law.
“Today’s ruling is vindicating and affirming. I’ve been told that slaying dragons will get you burned, but in light of today’s victory and the importance of doing what is needed for a free and honest press, it is a worthwhile price to pay. The mission continues.”
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