As the trial of claims for phone hacking and related unlawful information gathering against Prince Harry and over 100 other claimants (collectively known in court as ‘The Claimant Group’) against Mirror Group Newspapers continues, Platinum looks at the gathering of information by illegal means involving a web of corruption, blackmail and coercion.
By Alan Wares
In 1999, the Metropolitan Police were looking the unsolved 1987 murder of private investigator Daniel Morgan in a pub car park in Sydenham, south London. Morgan ran Southern Investigations with his business partner Jonathan Rees. Although acquitted in 2009 of Morgan’s murder, it was found that Rees was one of the key players in obtaining information illegally on behalf of the News of the World newspaper.
The lack of successful prosecution of Rees was put down to many acts of what reports referred to as ‘institutional corruption’ within the Metropolitan Police. The senior investigating officer, Detective Sergeant Sid Fillery, later replaced Morgan at Southern Investigations upon his retirement from the force. He had already been unofficially ‘working’ with them while a police officer, but failed to inform his superiors.
Rees himself was imprisoned for seven years on a separate count of perverting the course of justice when he sought to plant cocaine on a man involved in a child custody case. Upon his release, he worked on a freelance basis for the Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror as well as the News of the World.
After the collapse of the Morgan murder trial at the Old Bailey, in March 2011 it was revealed that Rees had earned £150,000 a year from the News of the World for supplying illegally obtained information about people in the public eye.
He had a network of contacts with corrupt police officers, who obtained confidential records for him. He claimed that his extensive contacts provided him with confidential information from banks and government organisations and he was routinely able to obtain confidential data from bank accounts, telephone records, car registration details and computers. He was also alleged to have commissioned burglaries on behalf of journalists.
The News International phone hacking scandal was a controversy involving the now-defunct News of the World and other British newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch. Employees and freelancers of the newspaper were accused of engaging in phone hacking, police bribery, and exercising improper influence in the pursuit of stories.
It was the Daniel Morgan murder that exposed the story of collusion and corruption, and investigations conducted from 2005 to 2007 appeared to show that the vast network of the paper’s phone hacking activities.
In July 2011 it was revealed that the phones of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, relatives of deceased British soldiers, and victims of the July 7th 2005 London bombings had also been hacked.
The resulting public outcry against News Corporation and its owner, Rupert Murdoch, led to several high-profile resignations, while advertiser boycotts led to the closure of the News of the World on July 10th 2011, after 168 years of publication.
The then-prime minister, David Cameron, announced on July 6th 2011 that a public inquiry, later known as the Leveson Inquiry, would look into phone hacking and police bribery by the News of the World and consider the wider culture and ethics of the British newspaper industry. A number of arrests and convictions followed, most notably of the former News of the World managing editor Andy Coulson.
Illegal data gathering
Phone hacking is the practice of exploring a mobile device often using computer exploits to analyse everything from the lowest memory and CPU levels up to the highest file system and process levels. Modern open source tooling has become fairly sophisticated as to be able to “hook” into individual functions within any running App on an unlocked device and allow deep inspection and modification of its functions.
Phone hacking is a large branch of computer security that includes studying various situations exactly how attackers use security exploits to gain some level of access to a mobile device in a variety of situations and presumed access levels.
The term came to prominence during the News International phone hacking scandal, in which it was alleged (and in some cases proved in court) that the British tabloid newspaper the News of the World had been involved in the interception of voicemail messages of the British Royal Family, other public figures, and a murdered schoolgirl named Milly Dowler.
Phone hacking, being a form of surveillance, is illegal in many countries unless it is carried out as lawful interception by a government agency, such as the police or security services. In the News International phone hacking scandal, private investigator Glenn Mulcaire was found to have violated the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. He was sentenced to six months in prison in January 2007.
There were supposed to be two inquiries led by Lord Justice Sir Brian Leveson – the first looked into ‘the culture, practices and ethics of the British press’. This took place at The Royal Courts of Justice from November 2011 to June 2012.
Leveson heard testimony from those on the receiving end of phone hacking including actors Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan; author JK Rowling; smear campaign victim Christopher Jeffries; families of murder victims and many other. It also heard from journalists, broad-casters, editors and media proprietors, with varying degrees of either compliance or irritation; depending on which way they felt the justice system should interfere with the freedom of the press.
Leveson’s report was published as a 2,000-page document in November 2012, mainly focusing on how the Press Complaints Commission was insufficient as a watchdog for the press, and needed updating, with a proper code of conduct to allow individuals a proper right of redress. Membership would be voluntary, but incentivised.
The second part of the Leveson Inquiry – ‘the extent of unlawful or improper conduct within News International,
other media organisations or other organisations’ never materialised. It had to be delayed while other ongoing police investigations into corruption and collusion were completed. In late May this year, Leveson made another public call, in his first interview on the matter, for the second inquiry to convene.
Critics believed the decision to indefi-nitely delay the second part of the inquiry was the cold hand of News International owner Rupert Murdoch exerting his undue influence over the government of the time. The government, for their part, dismissed that notion, stating that the second inquiry would be ‘too costly’ and ‘not find anything’.
As it transpired, the cost of the first Leveson Inquiry was £5.4m – the kind of money many of those in the spotlight would find down the back of their sofa.
In light of the allegations of the News of the World phone hacking into the mobile phone voice mail of murder victim
Milly Dowler, on July 5th 2011 in partnership with Brian Cathcart and other concerned individuals, Media Standards Trust (MST) formed the ‘Hacked Off’ campaign. This MST is a think tank which had been formed in 2006 to carry out research on issues in the media sector, while advocating for press freedom as well as industry quality, transparency and accountability.
The campaign is supported by a number of journalists, broadcasters, politicians of all parties, writers and victims of phone hacking. Hacked Off produces its own publication ‘Free & Fearless’.
Hugh Grant is often the public face of Hacked Off, appearing on programmes like Question Time and Newsnight in order to give a voice to those on the receiving end of illegal press intrusion.
In 2012, in order to head off further misguided and unfounded criticism that ‘Hacked Off’ was merely a ‘secretive pressure group... of wealthy and powerful individuals and celebrities... which has successfully campaigned for state control of the media,’ the group disassociated itself from the MST.
In April 2011, Grant published an article in the New Statesman titled “The Bugger, Bugged” about a conversation with Paul McMullan, a former journalist and paparazzo for News of the World.
In unguarded comments which were secretly taped by Grant, McMullan alleged that editors at the Daily Mail and News of the World, particularly Andy Coulson, had ordered journalists to engage in illegal phone tapping and had done so with the full knowledge of senior British politicians. McMullan, torn into as ‘morally bankrupt’ by Steve Coogan live on Newsnight in 2011, also said that every British Prime Minister from Margaret Thatcher onwards had cultivated a close relationship with Rupert Murdoch and his senior executives.
When asked by Grant whether prime minster David Cameron had encouraged the Metropolitan Police to “drag their feet” on investigating illegal phone tapping by Murdoch’s journalists, McMullan agreed this had happened, and stated that police themselves had taken bribes from tabloid journalists: “20% of the Met has taken backhanders from tabloid hacks. So why would they want to open up that can of worms? And what’s wrong with that, anyway? It doesn’t hurt anyone particularly.”
Grant’s article attracted considerable interest, due to both the revelatory content of the taped conversation, and the novelty of his turning the tables on a tabloid journalist.
While the allegations regarding the News of the World continued to receive coverage in the broadsheets and similar media, it was only with the revelation that the voicemail of murdered Milly Dowler had been hacked, and evidence for her murder enquiry had been deleted, that the coverage turned from media interest to widespread public (and eventually political) outrage.
In 2012, Grant settled a case he had brought with the News of the World. He subsequently became something of a spokesman against Murdoch’s News Corporation.
In 2018, Mirror Group Newspapers apologised for its actions towards Grant and other public figures, calling the affair “morally wrong”. This came after Grant accepted a six-figure sum to settle a High Court action. He donated the payout to Hacked Off.
Now, Grant has brought another action against the Sun newspaper. He told the court that they had use ‘burglaries to order,’ and ‘breaking and entering’ to obtain private information through ‘bugging, landline tapping and phone hacking.” For its part, The Sun’s legal team is saying that the case has no merit as it was ‘brought too late’.
As for those who indulged In phone-hacking and other illegal forms of data and information gathering, many were cross-examined by Leveson.
Their demeanour is one of smug contempt, mostly for the self-entitled considerations they have about believing that they have circumvented the law, and this being untouchable. At the same time, when they get caught, there is often one of three reactions; the first being that they knew the law and the authorities, working at a glacial pace, are merely an occupational hazard.
Second is the smirk across their faces knowing that the authorities took so long to investigate, collate and prosecute.
The third common reversion-to-type is to play the victim. With no concept of self-awareness, they will convince any who they believe cares that they are the patsy in a sting. Pitiful, isn’t it?
Irrespective the interest in the Leveson Inquiry at the time, including some hysteria by certain newspaper proprietors about the judiciary closing down the freedom of the press, it appears in 2023, little has been done to improve the behaviour of some aspects of the Fourth Estate. If nothing else, the fact that over 100 complainants are suing Mirror Group is testament to that.
As Alan Rusbridger, then editor of The Guardian wrote at the time, “The press must accept that the breach of trust engendered by a series of Editors’ Code breaches and a discredited PCC needs tackling immediately and resolutely.”
Still we wait.