Phone hacking at the News of the World was sanctioned by managing editor Stuart Kuttner and three other top executives at Rupert Murdoch’s UK newspaper group, one of its most senior journalists told a court yesterday.
At a pre-sentencing hearing yesterday, former chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck maintained that approval for hacking was given by editor Andy Coulson, convicted last week, and Mr Kuttner and three other News International executives – none of whom have been convicted.
Through his lawyer, Mr Thurlbeck also said it was Mr Kuttner and Mr Coulson who made the decision not to inform police of the suspected whereabouts of the missing teenager Milly Dowler for 24 hours, while the paper tried to find her themselves to get an exclusive story.
Mr Kuttner, managing editor of the Sunday tabloid between 1987 and 2009, was acquitted of conspiring to hack voicemails at the Old Bailey last week, after telling jurors he had no knowledge of the practice and was disgusted by it.
Mr Thurlbeck made his claims in Court 12 of the Old Bailey as lawyers for him, news editors Greg Miskiw and James Weatherup and private detective Glenn Mulcaire – who all pleaded guilty to hacking offences last summer – gave their mitigation.
Mr Justice Saunders, who oversaw the phone hacking trial, will sentence the four and Coulson, who became communications director to the Prime Minister, on Friday.
Referring to hacking, Hugh Davies, QC, for Thurlbeck, told the court:
“To his direct knowledge it was both known to and approved by more senior managers including each of his newsdesk editors Mr Miskiw, Mr Weatherup, [another executive, who cannot be named for legal reasons], Mr Coulson, Mr Kuttner, [and two other executives, who cannot be named for legal reasons].”
Mr Davies added: “They are all more senior than Mr Thurlbeck.”
During the eight-month phone hacking trial, Coulson maintained that in April 2002 he did not send a team of six reporters and photographers to Telford to investigate whether Milly Dowler was working at a factory, after the paper hacked her phone.
However, Mr Davies, said Thurlbeck’s position was that the team which undertook the investigation was directed by Coulson and Mr Kuttner.
The police were only informed on Saturday 14 April, after a lag of at least 24 hours.
Mr Davies told the court: “The decision to delay informing the police of this investigation until Saturday 13 April was that of Mr Kuttner and Mr Coulson, rather than Mr Thurlbeck.”
He said documents also showed that two senior executives at Rupert Murdoch’s British newspaper group – which publishes the Sun and the Times – were aware of the hacking of Home Secretary David Blunkett in 2004.
Mr Davies said that Thurlbeck had not been willing to testify “against former friends and colleagues” at the trial, which concluded last week.
Intervening, Mr Justice Saunders told the lawyer: “It’s just slightly sad that very capable investigative journalism have not been prepared until now, through you, to come clean about what was going on.”
Mitigating for Mr Thurlbeck – who tasked Mulcaire to hack Milly Dowler’s parents – said: “He is no apologist for what has occurred or the other unacceptable industry practices at that time.
“He has become over time an outspoken critic of aspects of the industry and an advocate for continuing reform.”
Mr Thurlbeck’s personal reputation had been “destroyed,” the lawyer told Court 12, adding that his client had shown “genuine remorse” and wanted to apologise to victims.
Charles Bott QC, for James Weatherup, said his client admitted that he had given instructions to Mulcaire but pointed out that he had not hacked phones himself.
Mr Weatherup had sought to be demoted from the news desk because “he didn’t like Mr Coulson’s editorial style or his personal manner.”
“At the time of Mr Weatherup’s offending we say that phone hacking was endemic in tabloid journalism,” Mr Bott told Court 12.
Without naming names of who had approved the practice, Mr Bott continued: “The suggestion that phone hacking was the responsibility of a small clique of news editors and reporters was misleading.”
Phone hacking at the News of the World was “standard policy” and “condoned and encouraged” by senior management because it was a “cost-effective” way of getting stories at a time of shrinking circulations, he added.
Trevor Burke QC, for Greg Miskiw – the most prolific tasker of Mulcaire – said the veteran news editor had pleaded guilty at an early opportunity.
“He has expressed his genuine remorse,” Mr Burke told the judge.
“It’s quite plain from his history that the public do not require protection from him.”
Miskiw was not in good health and had been bankrupted, he added.
Mr Burke said: “He has lost his reputation as a journalist and his good character and any realistic hope of working again.”
Gavin Millar QC, for Glenn Mulcaire, said that his client had borne the brunt of negative publicity during the hacking trial while News International executives had been shielded by reporting restrictions.
“What we suggest he became in the media and in the public debate surrounding Leveson was the personification of the misdeeds of the News of the World,” the lawyer said.
He said that at the time he was hacking phones Mulcaire did not believe he was breaking the law because he was being tasked by “a huge national media organisation” with expert legal advice.
In particular, Mulcaire he had been led to believe that he was accessing Milly Dowler’s voicemails “with the blessing of the police.”
Mulcaire knew that [NI subsidiary] News Group Newspapers had close connections with the police and believed that they had provided its journalists the PIN and mobile number for the missing 13-year-old, Mr Davies told the court.
The defence lawyer added that his client also believed there were pages of his notes on Milly that had never been returned to him by detectives.
Timothy Langdale QC, who vigorously defended Coulson during the eight months of the hacking trial, will explain his client’s mitigation in the same courtroom later today.