When the high court last summer ordered the News of the World to pay damages to Max Mosley for secretly filming him with prostitutes, the paper was furious. In an angry leader column, it insisted that public figures must maintain standards. “It is not for the powerful and the influential to run to the courts to gag newspapers from publishing stories that are TRUE,” it said. “This is all about the public’s right to know.”
Even as those words were being published, lawyers and senior executives from News International’s subsidiary News Group were preparing to run to court to gag Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association, who was suing the News of the World for its undisclosed involvement in the illegal interception of messages left on his mobile phone.
By persuading the high court to seal the file and by paying Taylor more than pounds 400,000 damages in exchange for his silence, News Group prevented the public from knowing anything about the hundreds of pages of evidence which had been disclosed in Taylor’s case, revealing potentially criminal behaviour by journalists on its payroll. It also protected some powerful and influential people from the implications of that evidence.
David Cameron’s chief press adviser, Andy Coulson, is not named in any of the suppressed evidence. However, the paperwork shows that during the time when he was editor of the News of the World, and contrary to News Group’s earlier denials, editorial staff for whom he was responsible were involved with private investigators who engaged in illegal phone-hacking and that when Coulson was deputy editor, reporters and executives were commissioning multiple purchases of confidential information, which is illegal unless it is proved to be in the public interest. These purchases were not secret within the News of the World office: they were openly paid for by the accounts department with invoices which itemised illegal acts. News Group has always maintained that it acts lawfully and in the public interest.
The scale of the activity is bound to provoke questions about whether Coulson knew of and sanctioned the activity. When he was asked by the Guardian whether he accepted that his journalists had been hacking into phones and illegally obtaining information, Coulson made no comment beyond saying he knew nothing about Taylor’s legal action. When he resigned, he said he had had no knowledge of his reporter Clive Goodman’s involvement in hacking the phones of royal staff.
The full picture on News Group’s involvement in the hacking of mobile phones is still not clear, largely because the Metropolitan Police took the controversial decision not to inform the public figures whose phones had been targeted and the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to take News Group executives to court. Scotland Yard is likely to face questions about whether senior officers intervened to avoid alienating a powerful media group.
Scotland Yard disclosed only a limited amount of its evidence to Taylor. The Guardian understands that the full police file shows that several thousand public figures were targeted by investigators, including, during one month in 2006: John Prescott, then deputy prime minister; Tessa Jowell, then responsible for the media as secretary of state for culture; Boris Johnson, then the Conservative spokesman on higher education; Gwyneth Paltrow after she had given birth to her son; George Michael, who had been seen looking tired at the wheel of his car; and the former Big Brother TV show participant Jade Goody.
When Goodman, the News of the World’s royal editor, was jailed for hacking into the mobile phones of Palace staff, News International said he had been acting without their knowledge. One of the investigators working for the paper, Glenn Mulcaire, was also charged with hacking the phones of the Lib Dem MP Simon Hughes, celebrity PR Max Clifford, model Elle MacPherson and football agent Sky Andrew as well as Taylor. At the time, the News of the World claimed to know nothing about the hacking of these targets, but Taylor has now proved that to be untrue in his case. Others who are believed to have been possible targets include the Scottish politician Tommy Sheridan, who has previously accused the News of the World of bugging his car; Jeffrey Archer, whose perjury was exposed by the paper; and Sven-Goran Eriksson, whose sex life became a tabloid obsession.
According to one source with direct knowledge of the Scotland Yard evidence, News of the World journalists were systematically using private investigators who would break the law to obtain information, hacking into thousands of mobile phones and supplying raw material which was then converted into stories that made no reference to their real source. Against that – and in apparent contradiction of the evidence supplied and suppressed in Taylor’s case – senior News International executives have publicly claimed that Goodman was the only person at the News of the World who was involved in hacking, and that he acted without their knowledge.
In evidence to the House of Commons select committee on culture, media and sport, on 6 March 2007, seven months after Goodman’s arrest, Les Hinton, chairman of News International, was asked if he had conducted “a full, rigorous internal inquiry” and was “absolutely convinced” that Goodman was the only person who knew about the phone hacking. Hinton replied: “Yes we have, and I believe he was the only person.” Hinton added that the investigation would continue under the new editor, Colin Myler, but Myler had already told the Press Complaints Commission 12 days earlier that Goodman’s hacking was “aberrational”, “a rogue exception” and “an exceptional and unhappy event in the 163-year history of the News of the World, involving one journalist”. The same claim was made later by the News of the World’s managing editor, Stuart Kuttner, who told Radio Four’s Today programme in February 2008 that only one News of the World journalist had been involved in illegal phone hacking: “It happened once at the News of the World. The reporter was fired he went to prison. The editor resigned.”
In an unconnected move, Kuttner yesterday announced that he was stepping down as managing editor of the News of the World.
After Clive Goodman was jailed, the then chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, Sir Christopher Meyer, promised to investigate “the entire newspaper and magazine industry of the UK to establish what is their practice” but opted not to question Andy Coulson on the grounds that he had resigned; and not to question any other journalist or editorial executive on the paper, apart from Myler, who necessarily had no direct knowledge of what had been going on before his arrival. The PCC’s subsequent report failed to uncover any evidence of any phone hacking by any media organisation beyond that revealed at Goodman’s trial.
In suppressing Taylor’s legal action, News Group buried not only the Scotland Yard evidence but also paperwork that had been seized by the Information Commission from a Hampshire private investigator, Steve Whittamore, who had been running a network of sources who specialised in the illegal extraction of information from police computers, British Telecom, the DVLA, Inland Revenue and others. Whittamore subsequently pleaded guilty to criminal offences, although the newspapers who hired him were never prosecuted.
Although the Information Commission has since said that almost all of this activity was “certainly or very probably” illegal under the Data Protection Act, the paperwork shows no sign of secrecy at all as 27 different journalists from the News of the World and four from the Sun ordered more than a thousand searches. One News of the World reporter made 130 requests. Another made 118. One news executive is recorded as directly commissioning 90 actions by Whittamore. This included 23 illegal searches of the DVLA for the details behind car number plates; two illegal searches of police databases for criminal records; five illegal searches of phone company records to convert a mobile number into a private address; and three requests for illegal access to records of ex-directory phone numbers.
Another news executive is recorded commissioning 70 more actions including nine illegal searches of British Telecom records to convert landline phone numbers into addresses; 13 illegal searches at the DVLA; and two illegal accesses to criminal records from police computers. A very senior executive of the paper is recorded directly commissioning illegal access to records from a mobile phone company.
Among those whose privacy apparently was illegally violated when British Telecom was conned into handing over their addresses and/or ex-directory numbers are Nigella Lawson (four times), Patsy Kensit, Jude Law and Sadie Frost, Lisa Snowdon (three times), Anne Robinson and her former partner, Carol Caplin, Lenny Henry, Vanessa Feltz, Lord Mountbatten’s grandson, and witnesses to the murder of Jill Dando, thus potentially interfering with the course of a live police inquiry.
When the actress Charlotte Coleman died after an asthma attack, the News of the World paid for BT to be conned into handing over the itemised Friends and Family list from her bereaved parents’ phone bill. When the TV presenter Linda Barker moved house, they hired Whittamore to get her new home address from the supposedly confidential social security database.
Working on instructions from the News of the World, Whittamore and his network also conned the criminal records database of the police, which is a specific criminal offence; the Inland Revenue, also a specific criminal offence; a cab company used by Ken Livingstone; a Paris hotel used by Jason Donovan; the actors union, Equity, for the addresses of actors; Granada TV, for information on a Coronation Street actor; and on numerous occasions the DVLA for the home details of people whose car numbers they had spotted. The News of the World has insisted that its journalists use subterfuge only when justified in the public interest.
The Information Commissioner has resisted all requests to release the entire collection of paperwork seized from Whittamore, which covers a total of 13,343 requests for information from 305 journalists not only from News International but also from the Mirror Group, the Observer and Associated Newspapers. The Daily Mail alone made 985 requests, more than any other paper.
After the conviction of Whittamore, the Information Commission, which is responsible for policing confidential databases, urged the Press Complaints Commission to issue “a clear public statement warning journalists and editors of the very real risks of committing criminal offences.” Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act show that the PCC, which is funded by newspapers, resisted doing this and finally produced guidance which the Information Commission has publicly described as “disappointing”.