Mirror Group Phone Hacking: IPSOmertà, Inaction and a Culture of Impunity – Julian Petley

21 12 2018

During the course of a three-week trial in March 2015, it was revealed how MGN papers, and especially the Sunday Mirror, had hacked the phones of eight well-known people, wreaking havoc in their personal lives by causing them to believe that stories about them appearing in the papers had been fed to them by their nearest and dearest. The victims included Shane Ritchie, Paul Gascoigne, Alan Yentob and Sadie Frost.

According to the Guardian, 21 May 2015:

Detectives are understood to be examining claims that at least 16 journalists at the titles – including some at senior editorial levels – were aware of or involved in phone hacking. Four journalists have been arrested to date and, although their names were read out in court, they cannot be named because of ongoing reporting restrictions. The newspaper group also faces the prospect of a possible corporate prosecution over allegations that ‘industrial-scale phone hacking’ went to senior levels in its three national titles.

A total of £1.2 million in damages was awarded to the eight test claimants.

Gulati and others v MGN Ltd (2015): the unredacted judgement

At the time of the trial’s conclusion, and for three years afterwards, only a redacted version of the judgment was available. This was so as not to prejudice the integrity of any future trial of MGN employees. However, as no such trial has taken place, the full judgement has now been made available ([2015] EWHC 1482 (Ch)), It makes for eye-opening reading.

We now know what the trial judge, Mr Justice Mann, had to say in particular about two senior MGN executives: Tina Weaver, who was editor of the Sunday Mirror at the time of events which led to the trial, and her deputy Richard Wallace. The former was mentioned no less than 27 times by the judge, and the latter five. Weaver edited the paper from 2001 to 2012, and Wallace was its deputy editor from 2003 to 2004, at which point he became editor of the Daily Mirror. Both were made redundant in 2012 when Trinity Mirror decided to merge the two titles. Long-term partners, they married in 2016. In October 2017 Wallace was made Senior Vice President (TV & Production) of Simon Cowell’s entertainment company Syco, and in November 2018 Weaver replaced Rachel Johnson as a star columnist on the Mail on Sunday. In the present context it is also telling that she was a member of the Press Complaints Commission until 2012.

‘Wrong’ and ‘inaccurate’ evidence at the Leveson Inquiry

In evidence given to the Leveson Inquiry, Weaver, then still editor of the Sunday Mirror, had repeatedly denied any knowledge of phone hacking or even of gossip about it. However, on the basis of evidence produced at the trial Mr Justice Mann found that ‘she was involved in it, and she clearly had knowledge of it’, and thus the evidence she gave was ‘wrong’ (213). Similarly Wallace had denied any such knowledge, and specifically of hacking carried out by the showbusiness team, but since it had been revealed at the trial that the paper’s star hacker, Dan Evans, had actually hacked phones while sitting not simply in the same office but at the same table as Wallace (55), the judge stated that: ‘It follows that the inaccuracy of this statement has been established for the purposes of this trial’ (203). He also registered his finding that ‘wrong, not just disingenuous, statements were made to the Leveson inquiry by at least two deponents [clearly Weaver and Wallace], and that the newspaper group was indeed putting up what was in effect a strong denial, from which it has had to resile’. He also made it clear that the damages awarded took full account of the fact that ‘the newspapers were adopting a posture of denial, and apparent denial, of the existence of evidence’ (214).

This could well suggest that both Weaver and Wallace may have not only committed perjury but also contravened section 35(2)(a) of the Inquiries Act 2005, which states that:

‘A person is guilty of an offence if during the course of an inquiry he does anything that is intended to have the effect of distorting or otherwise altering any evidence, document or other thing that is given, produced or provided to the inquiry panel’.

On 14 March 2013 detectives from Operation Weeting arrested Weaver on suspicion of phone hacking. Also arrested were James Scott, then Sunday People editor and formerly Sunday Mirror deputy editor and news editor (mentioned 46 times in the unredacted Gulati judgement); Nick Buckley, then deputy People editor and formerly Sunday Mirror head of news (30 mentions); and Mark Thomas, a former editor of the People and a former deputy editor of the Sunday Mirror (19 mentions). In July 2015, Lee Harpin, who had recently been appointed agenda editor of all three Trinity Mirror titles, was also arrested on suspicion of phone hacking, and had his computer confiscated.

‘Insufficient evidence’

However, none were to face any criminal charges because, in December 2015, the then Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Saunders, decided that there was ‘insufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of a conviction’ on charges of either phone hacking or perverting the course of justice. Such was the result of Weeting, which had cost a total of £22.8m. Her action was thought by the hacking victims to be highly contentious at the time, but in the light of what is revealed by the unredacted Gulati judgement it seems downright incomprehensible. Of course, these matters would most certainly have been raised at the second part of the Leveson Inquiry, which was necessary because certain issues could not be discussed at the first part because of impending and potential future court cases. However, no charges have been brought against Weaver and Wallace, or anybody else mentioned in the judgement, and Leveson 2 was summarily cancelled by Matt Hancock in March 2018 when he was culture secretary.

Most of the evidence against Weaver was provided by Dan Evans, who had hacked phones for the Sunday Mirror before being poached, specifically for his phone hacking skills, by the News of the World. He appeared as a Witness of Truth in the News of the World hacking trial, which meant that when he himself later pleaded guilty to two counts of phone hacking as well as to making illegal payments to officials and perverting the course of justice, he was given the relatively light punishment of a ten-month sentence, suspended for a year, and 200 hours of community service.

‘An instruction to hack’

Evans’s evidence, which was accepted in its entirety by Mr Justice Mann, showed that Weaver had had him trained to spearhead her paper’s phone hacking operations, and in particular to reconstruct a phone hacking database which the paper’s deputy editor, Mark Thomas, had taken with him when he left to become the editor of the People. To this end she and another staff member furnished him with hundreds of mobile phone numbers and other personal details, such as dates of birth (very useful when trying to guess PIN codes) (43). The judge explained that:

He was not usually given express written instructions, in terms, to hack a number, but from time to time he would receive a message containing a name, a telephone number and the date of birth of the apparent owner of that phone number.  That was in substance an instruction to hack, and he so took it. (46)

In his time at the Sunday Mirror, Evans cracked at least 100 PINs, and would make 60-100 calls a day. Mr Justice Mann explained that: ‘If he got useful or interesting information from listening to a message he would pass it “up the chain of command”’, which meant sending it to Weaver, Buckley, Wallace and Scott, who would decide what to do with it (47). He also noted that, according to Evans’s evidence, Weaver ‘even participated  in writing the story up’ (57). Drawing on various internal MGN e-mails made available to the court (70, 301), he noted that:

Some demonstrate data being provided to her, and the only sensible inference in the context of this case is so that she could conduct some hacking activity herself. Otherwise it is apparent that the emails are passing to and from journalists and editors at all levels, and supports the inference that hacking was being carried out at all levels. (69)

He concluded that:

Ms Weaver’s involvement in Mr Evans’ initial instruction about hacking, and her subsequent involvement in stories, knowing their source, means that knowledge of and participation in phone hacking existed at the highest level on the actual journalism (as opposed to the Board or administrative) side of the business. This is also demonstrated by Mr Evans’ evidence, which I accept, that Ms Weaver instructed Mr Evans to try to acquire an electronic ‘box’ which would help in working out PIN numbers …The fact that she gave her instruction is a demonstration of how high up, and how embedded, phone hacking had become in getting stories for the newspaper. (58)

Evans was aware that many journalists on the paper knew that numerous of its stories had been sourced by hacking, and indeed were themselves involved in hacking, although the judge added:

It is unnecessary to go into details about all this.  It is sufficient to say that he was able to give plenty of examples as to how stories were worked up from information acquired from phone hacking.  It demonstrates clearly how routine phone hacking had become and how  big a part it played in generating, developing or standing up stories. (57)

He also stated:

Bearing all that [evidence] in mind, it is fair and right to conclude that this material supports and demonstrates a widespread culture of phone hacking extending from journalists up to editors.  It shows that editorial staff not only knew about the practice, but are also likely to have conducted it themselves. (72)

Across the table from Richard Wallace

Nonetheless, Evans felt that he needed to maintain a degree of confidentiality about what he was doing, and because the Sunday Mirror office was open plan, he would carry out the hacking in one of the separate offices – either Wallace’s, in which the two actually sat across a table from each other, or occasionally Weaver’s (55). The judge explained that since Weaver knew that what they were doing constituted a strict liability offence under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, ‘Mr Evans received clear instructions from Ms Weaver about the need to cover his tracks for these unlawful activities’, details of which Evans explained to the court (53). Furthermore, Buckley told Scott and Evans to

stop referring to ‘phones’ and ‘messages’ in any communications and there should be no email overtly referring to voicemail hacking activity.  If it was necessary to refer to victims they should be referred to as ‘muppets’.  In fact no words of instruction were necessary in an email – an email containing just a phone number and a date of birth would be understood as being an instruction to hack. (53)

‘Repeated and prolonged intrusions into innocent people’s lives’

Since the 2015 trial, there have been numerous other phone-hacking claims against MGN – see, for example here, here, here and here. And when the Mirror group settled with Hugh Grant in February 2018, the public apology which he insisted was read out in open court included the following:

MGN admits that a number of its senior employees, including executives, editors and journalists, condoned, encouraged or actively turned a blind eye to the widespread culture of unlawful information gathering activities at all three of its newspapers for many years and actively sought to conceal its wrongdoing from its many victims of intrusion.

MGN admits that its repeated and prolonged intrusions into innocent people’s lives over, in some instances, a decade, could have been prevented or interrupted. Instead, Trinity Mirror failed to properly investigate these disgraceful actions and/or to act sufficiently when the allegations of MGN’s journalists’ unlawful activities were first alleged and publicly emerged in 2006 and when the first inquiries into these wrongdoings were made.

In addition, MGN’s counsel stated:

MGN accepts that the unlawful interception of voicemail messages and procurement of private information about the Claimant and others should never have happened. MGN acknowledges that was morally wrong and deeply regrets the wrongful acts of its former employees which caused damage and distress to those affected, including the Claimant.

Omertà, inaction and a culture of impunity

And yet still no action has been forthcoming on the part of the police and the CPS. Given the widespread omertà on phone hacking stories across most of the national press, it is entirely unsurprising that not a single national newspaper has seen fit to publish details of the contents of the unredacted judgement. This has been left to the indefatigable Byline here and here.

But Byline has also revealed that claimants against MGN are seeking to widen the scope of the investigation into the snooping activities of the company. So far, as noted above, this has concentrated solely on phone hacking, but as  the claimants’ lead solicitor, James Heath, has stated: ‘Phone hacking was by no means the most important or fruitful of the Dark Arts’ employed by MGN. Meanwhile, in her new job, Weaver has already written about the private lives of four people who she placed under illegal surveillance as editor of the Sunday Mirror: Anthony McPartlin and his wife Lisa Armstrong, and Gwynneth Paltrow and her ex-husband Chris Martin of Coldplay.

If the ever-mounting evidence of both corporate and individual wrongdoing at MGN is still regarded by the CPS as an ‘insufficient’ basis for mounting prosecutions, then it is hardly surprising that wrongdoing of all kinds continues to be endemic in most of the national press, which has been given every reason to believe that it is operating in a culture of impunity as far as the police and prosecuting authorities are concerned.

Julian Petley is a Professor of Journalism at Brunel University, London


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21 12 2018
zrpradyer

Follow the money, as they say.
A most depressing article but thank you for giving the facts the light of day.
What can one say about the state of journalism and the state of the judicial process in the UK?
The journalist with impeccable integrity – probably the most courageous journalist in the UK – is effectively imprisoned in London and in fear of his life should he try to escape.
Just to rub salt into his wounds, his journalist brothers and sisters have willingly joined in with the destruction of his reputation, his mission to publish evidence of wrong-doing the and, effectively, his life by repeating and printing scurrilous nonsense.
At least Julian Assange can die a good death whereas so many of his peers are already decomposing whilst congratulating themselves on their achievements.
Thank you for this article.

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