After two years of foot-dragging, nit-picking, hair-splitting and general obfuscation, News International has finally done the right thing in the civil litigation about phone hacking. It has put its hands up and agreed to compensate all but a few of the remaining victims who were suing it.
This belated milestone in Britain’s worst-ever press scandal seems likely to rob us of the delicious prospect of a civil trial in which the company attempted to defend the undefendable, but much more importantly it delivers some justice to people whose privacy was shockingly violated.
So this is a moment to pay tribute to all of those civil litigants, famous and obscure. We should honour them for their courage in challenging not only the might of Rupert Murdoch’s company, but the whole tabloid press, which was so eager to help keep Murdoch’s dirty linen hidden. And we should also honour them for prising open this huge can of worms when the entire establishment was determined to keep it shut.
There is talk of a new royal yacht for the queen’s diamond jubilee; perhaps before 2012 is out we should also have a handsome monument to the civil litigants as a gesture of thanks from a grateful nation. It could take the form of a giant tin-opener, and a location in Fleet Street might be appropriate.
These people changed everything.Without them the “one rogue reporter” lie would probably still be the official line from both News International and the Metropolitan Police. Rebekah Brooks would still be in her job, the ghastly Colin Myler would be editing the News of the World, Andy Coulson would be in 10 Downing Street and the press would still be telling us the PCC was an effective regulator.
A whole industry of deception, in other words, has crumbled thanks to the people compensated today and thanks to their predecessors who settled earlier, notably Sienna Miller.
And pathetic though News International’s legal defence has been lately, suing was never easy for the claimants. Think of the risks they exposed themselves to.
Back in 2010 when many of these cases began life, every politician knew that the Sun and the News of the World could wreck their reputations, and that these papers had more access to the prime minister (and his two predecessors) than any backbencher and most ministers. Suing probably looked like political suicide to most MPs.
Across television, cinema and sport, from Hollywood to India, New Corporation owns or controls far more than any other company, so if you were an actress, a sportsman, a football agent or a PR person you risked much more than your time and money by suing — you risked your livelihood.
As for ordinary people whose phones had been hacked, you might think they had nothing to lose by suing, but think again: this is a company that employed private investigators on an industrial scale. Would you be happy to have every aspect of your private life secretly investigated, and if the slightest blemish was found — perhaps involving a vulnerable relative — to have that exposed in the press?
So it took courage for these people to sue, and collectively they made the difference between News International escaping scot free and what we have now: substantial police investigations, a couple of dozen arrests, and the historic and far-reaching Leveson Inquiry.
If they can’t have a monument on Fleet Street, then what about MBEs all round?
Brian Cathcart teaches journalism at Kingston University London and is a founder of Hacked Off. He tweets at @BrianCathcart
If anyone deserves an accolade or award, it’s Steven Nott for finding out about hacking and then doing his best to publicise the problem.
It’s very sad that the people he reported it to, then chose to abuse the problem by carrying out hacking themselves.
Steven Nott deserves public recognition and an MBE is the least he should receive.
I’ve got what I wanted out of The Leveson inquiry. Exposing the Phone Hacking loophole in 1999 to the Public was my main aim but I never succeeded back then no matter how difficult it was. If it wasn’t for Lord Justice Leveson accepting information from anyone and the fact that Operation Weeting had started its own investigations in Jan 2011 then I don’t think I could have done it on my own. My wife and I sat down, had a good discussion about what needed to be done and whether I was strong enough to go through it all again for fear of another breakdown. The truth being exposed was more important and needed to be heard by a wider audience. I’m so glad I’ve had the chance to ‘air’ my information. Some may look at is a sheer coincidence, others may look at it as a smoking gun. However it’s looked at, it’s not the sort of info that should be kept locked up in a memory. Someone had to be told. I didn’t approach the original Police Investigation in 2005/2006 because I thought it was all being dealt with and people had been imprisoned for the crimes. However, I wasn’t 100% happy with the outcome of the one rogue reporter story that was being used and only Mulcaire and Goodman were jailed but I did think that was the end of it all. It was not until 2011 in January after the Andy Coulson stuff was getting serious that it was time to ‘bare all’.
I’m grateful for the Public recognition that I’ve been awarded but to make me an MBE for doing a ‘civic duty’ would not be right. If you want to see more of the story you can visit my blog at http://www.hackergate.co.uk which was only set up in July 2011 because yet again No-One was listening. Thanks to my eldest daughter telling me to ‘tell my story’ on Twitter I developed a voice and finally broke down the wall of silence.
I do appreciate your comments though. Many Thanks Nigel S
I agree with Brian’s article but it should not be forgotten (as highlighted by Chris Bryant at a meeting yesterday) that many of these cases could not have been brought but for the current law which allows claimants lawyers’ success fees and ATE insurance (against adverse costs) to be paid by the defendant ie News Group Newspapers in this case. The Legal Aid Bill, which has already been passed by the House of Commons and is with the Lords for consideration, seeks to abolish this system, and will make it impossible for many future victims of press abuse to seek redress through the Courts. Under the proposed new system, instead of the losing party paying, as now, the winning claimant will have to bear the costs of success fees and insurance from their own (often very small) damages. Few lawyers will be prepared to take the risks of taking such cases and fewer individuals will be prepared to risk bringing litigation if these changes go through. This will have a dramatic impact on access to justice for the ordinary individual in libel and privacy cases and such cases should be exempted from the bill.Steven Heffer, Chair of Lawyers for Media Standards and partner at Collyer Bristow.