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Sat 17 August 2019
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The names of at least seven middle-managers were found in a sample of 2% of private investigator invoices, but the company’s lawyers say stories also came from public domain sources.

News Desks at two of the Mirror Group’s national titles commissioned private investigators (PIs) to illegally obtain private information for stories on a huge scale, a court has been told. 

The names of at least seven mid-ranking news executives were found on a sample of invoices paid to PI firms. The allegations were made by lawyers representing claimants who are suing Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN) for allegedly misusing private information.

The counsel for those claimants, David Sherborne, read out the names of newsdesk executives and said they were among journalists listed (as having commissioned PIs) in a table summarising invoices disclosed by MGN during the litigation.

The list included Ben Proctor, a former news editor at The People and ex-showbiz editor Debbie Manley. Three former deputy news editors of the Sunday Mirror were named including Euan Stretch, Dennis Rice and James Saville. James Scott and Nick Buckley, who served as senior news editors at the Sunday Mirror, were also on the list.

Many of the people named have previously denied being involved in unlawful information gathering.


Private Investigators or Public Knowledge?

The executives’ names allegedly appeared on invoices for private investigator firms TDI, ELI, Avalon, Trackers, Media Investigations and ‘Law and Commercial’. 

The invoices relate to 13 of the current 39 claims, mainly celebrities and sports personalities, in the latest wave of Mirror Newspapers Hacking Litigation (MNHL).

Counsel for MGN, Richard Spearman QC, said much of the information wasn’t private “but instead merely repeating information that was already in the public domain”

Mr Sherborne named the journalists, while setting out the alleged extent of newsdesk use of PIs in a bid by the claimants to resist an application by MGN to have 20 articles struck-out. 

MGN said that the articles are not the result of any unlawful activity, but were derived from legitimate sources such as stories in other newspapers, agency copy and interviews in the public domain.

Britain’s biggest publisher has accused celebrities and sports personalities of not doing enough research to find out if the articles, which they claim are hacked and blagged, were really the result of information already made public and thus no longer private, and which were obtained from public sources and not from illegal acts.

“This sample represents less than 2% of the known PI transactions and suggests that these desks were ordering investigations on a very regular basis,” Mr Sherborne told the court.

Counsel for MGN Richard Spearman QC said much of the information wasn’t private “but instead merely repeating information that was already in the public domain”. He blamed the claimants and the vast majority of legal advisers of not undertaking “research or consideration of what was already in the public domain before an article was published before alleging that the article must have been the product of unlawful activity.”

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However, David Sherborne stated in his skeleton argument, that MGN misunderstood their case, arguing that even though information may have been published before it did not mean it’s further publication could not constitute an invasion of privacy based on intrusion (rather than breach of confidence).

 Mr. Sherborne said that the table of invoices‘shows that a sample of over 300 invoices reveals scores of taskings of ELI (and TDI and Avalon) being carried out by the news editors, show business editors (and in one case a sports editor) and their deputies.

“This sample represents less than 2% of the known PI transactions and suggests that these desks were ordering investigations on a very regular basis,” Mr Sherborne told the court.


Connections to the Daniel Morgan Murder

TDI (Trace Direct International), which later became ELI (Express Locate International), was found by the judge in the landmark 2015 “Gulati” Mirror phone-hacking judgement, as carrying-out illegal investigations into private phone lines and itemised call data as a pre-cursor to mobile phone hacking. Avalon was another firm run by a blagger called Rob Palmer, while Trackers was run by a blagger called Andy Gadd.

Media Investigations and ‘Law and Commercial’ were names used by the infamous PI firm, Southern Investigations whose most recent owners were both jailed for serious criminal offences and a previous owner, Daniel Morgan, was the victim of a famous unsolved murder in 1987.

The news editors were named after many hours of legal argument in court about complex definitions of private information and the citing of many precedents, after MGN repeatedly stated that it obtained its stories from public sources, rather than from phone-hacking or by deception.

David Sherborne, for the claimants, said MGN had not produced any of its journalists to explain to the court how their articles were sourced. He added that illegal methods of information gathering were often used in conjunction with legitimate ones to ‘stand up the story’.


Was the Information Private?

Richard Spearman QC, for MGN,  argued that, even had information been hacked from someone’s phone, there was “no cause of action” open to claimants if the information obtained was not in itself private.

You always have to start with the question, is the information itself private?

Richard Spearman QC

 “If you heard the result of the boat race by hacking a voicemail, does that mean you couldn’t later publish a newspaper article on it? You always have to start with the question, is the information itself private?”

Many of the newspaper articles MGN wanted struck out, he argued, failed this test.

Mr Spearman showed the court one article about footballer John Hartson, headlined “ Celtic Star has Cancer.” This story, he said, was based on a statement on the club website and previously published articles in other places, including one the previous day on the BBC News website and a release from the Press Association. 

Mr Sherborne, for the claimants, said his case went beyond whether facts used in these articles were already public domain. He said MGN was using “speculation” to explain the sourcing of its stories as no evidence from the journalists who wrote them had been presented. He added that it was the intrusion involved in phone hacking that is a core breach of privacy – not just the particular information recovered. 

Phone hacking at MGN, he said, was “habitually used” and added it would not be “fanciful” (the test for strike-out applications) to suppose illegal practices took place in the course of the production of these stories, without hearing any evidence from the journalists involved in producing them. 

If they (MGN) don’t like it they shouldn’t have concealed evidence or lied to the Leveson Inquiry.

David Sherborne QC

Mr Sherborne then moved onto the issue of privacy. He said a newspaper may have a photograph taken of a person in a public place, but that doesn’t excuse the invasion of privacy involved in its publication if it was taken with a long lens by a paparazzo. He cited the Supreme Court case of supermodel Naomi Campbell, who was photographed through a window sitting in her study reading a book. The Supreme Court ruled that she still had a “reasonable expectation of privacy,” given the circumstances in which the photograph was taken.

Noting that in other cases MGN had similarly tried to have articles struck out, Mr Sherborne observed that after the disclosure of such background documents had been given, the company had settled the case.

He added: “If they (MGN) don’t like it they shouldn’t have concealed evidence or lied to the Leveson Inquiry.”

The Judge, Mr Justice Mann, has reserved his judgment.

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