Phone hacking was once a secret, surreptitious activity, carried on by private investigators and journalists, using secret techniques to access the voicemail of unsuspecting victims. Even when the story first broke it was long confined to the pages of the “Guardian” and, later, the “Independent” and the “Financial Times”. It is now clear that it will not go away. More victims come to light almost every day. On Monday 13 June 2011 the footballer Ryan Giggs commenced proceedings against the New of the World. On Wednesday 15 June 2011, the former “News of the World” editor (and current News International Chief Executive) Rebekah Brooks was apparently shown evidence by the police that her phone had been hacked “at least 20 times” when she was editor of the “Sun”.
This last “revelation” is, perhaps, the least surprising. “News International” has – consistently with its “everyone was doing it” line – suggested that a rival newspaper was involved. However, it is equally likely that the “News of the World” would want to find out what its stablemate, the “Sun”, was up to. And of course, it is not unknown for underlings to snoop on their own bosses.
Meanwhile the “News of the World” is continuing with its idea of a “compensation scheme” for victims. On 16 June 2011 its parent company News Corporation issued a Press Release announcing that former High Court libel judge Sir Charles Gray has agreed to act as the independent adjudicator for the scheme. According to this
The scheme will aim to avoid the costs and complexity of the court process and ensure a fair and speedy means for victims of illegal voicemail interception to be properly compensated for the damage they have suffered.
The proposal is that the scheme will pay the “potential damages” recoverable in legal action plus 10% and News Group will pay legal costs of applicants under the scheme, regardless of the outcome. The press release goes on to quote Rebekah Brooks, the Chief Executive Officer of News International, as saying
“We are pleased that Sir Charles Gray has agreed to be the independent adjudicator for the Compensation Scheme. His credentials as an arbitration expert and former High Court Judge specialising in media law make him ideally placed to perform this important role. We very much hope that the scheme will be used as a fair and efficient alternative to obtaining compensation through court action and satisfy successful claimants that we sincerely regret any harm caused.“
The scheme is not yet up and running but, according to the Press Release “NGN will publish further details and a start date for the scheme in the very near future“. According to the Press Gazette “£15-20 million” has been allocated to the scheme.
Meanwhile, in the House of Lords, Lord Fowler (former Conservative Cabinet Minister and times journalist) carries on his campaign for a public inquiry into phone hacking. On 16 June 2011, he asked the following question:
“To ask Her Majesty’s Government what further action they intend to take to prevent telephone hacking by newspapers”.
The Minister replied that the Government was “monitoring the results” of the police investigation and CPS assessment and would then “consider whether any further action will be necessary”. Lord Fowler responded by saying
There was a time when there was an attempt to write off phone hacking as the work of one rogue reporter. Does my noble friend recognise that in the last two weeks alone, News Corporation has paid out damages of £100,000 to the actress Sienna Miller and admitted misuse of private information, breach of confidence and harassment? News International has now set up what it calls a £15 million compensation fund for the victims of phone hacking, and evidence has emerged that the News of the World is not the only newspaper involved. Does she agree that all this represents a massive conspiracy against the public which the police and the Press Complaints Commission have been powerless to prevent, and will she give an assurance that once the criminal proceedings are complete-I emphasise, once they are complete-the Government will set up an independent inquiry to find out where the responsibility lies?
There were a number of interesting further contributions by members of the House of Lords including this from Lord Sugar (which attracted some press comment, see for example the “Independent“):
“Does the noble Baroness agree that it is ludicrous to suggest that an editor of a national newspaper was not aware of where the information came from? In the past, as I believe one of my noble friends has mentioned, a journalist was given a custodial sentence for phone tapping. Is not the editor responsible for what goes in the newspaper, and therefore should he not also be given a custodial sentence, as well as, indeed, the proprietor and the board of directors?”
The Minister replied that she was answered for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport but that “When it comes to editors, I am afraid that I am unaware of what is happening“.