Brian Cathcart asks when an institution involved in wholesale lawbreaking will begin to take some responsibility.
What is significant about the developments in the phone-hacking litigation this week is not that so many senior Mirror group figures have been named, but that it has taken so long for this to happen.
If those who ran the newspaper company had acted responsibly and with rigour, all these individuals, whether they are guilty or innocent, would have been called to account for themselves in 2006 at the latest.
Instead, a company that is supposedly dedicated to informing the public, to holding the powerful to account and to justice – a company that once purported to represent the interests of working people – has engaged in a disgraceful and dogged cover-up for well over a decade.
Even this week its lawyers squealed in protest as counsel for the 132 hacking claimants alleged in open court that, not only were editors and journalists such as Piers Morgan, Tina Weaver, Neil Wallis and Gary Jones implicated in unlawful activities (either because they participated or because they knew and didn’t stop them), but so also was the former chief executive, Sly Bailey, and so were the company’s two senior in-house lawyers, Paul Vickers and Marcus Partington.
If something similar had happened at a bank, a charity or a government agency, the entire national press would be baying for those answers.
For the record, at one time or another, they have all denied this.
It seems that the Mirror expected the cover-up (to which the company has admitted) to shield senior individuals from scrutiny forever. Certainly, the company and its corrupt allies in the national press did everything possible, year after year, to hide them.
First, they denied. Mirror staff, we were told, operated within the law.
Then, they denied some more – including in their evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, examining the culture, practices and ethics of the British press, which a judge has now condemned as perjured. Then they watched as a handful of relatively junior figures were prosecuted and convicted, but continued to deny that the high-ups had any knowledge.
Next, under pressure in the civil courts, they finally admitted that editors and senior figures knew about, took part in and covered up illegal activities – but declined to say which individuals were responsible.
And, after that, proving that openness and honesty were still not their game, they helped sabotage Part Two of the Leveson Inquiry, which would have investigated all this in public and on behalf of the public.
This isn’t about whether the named people go to jail or not. It is simply about whether, at any level, they should have to answer for themselves. They ran or helped run a big company in which (nobody can now deny this) law-breaking was rife. How can it possibly be right that they should walk away without even having to justify their conduct in public?
They condemn the civil actions as speculative and unfair, but that’s only the latest formulation of their evasion and denial. The civil cases are probing and exposing injustice. Without them, the Mirror group (also known as Reach) would still be in total denial. And – to use a formula beloved of the national press – the public and the victims of hacking have a right to know about this.
At the Mirror group, just as at the Murdoch papers and all the others who used illegal methods, the public has a right to know who hacked and used other illegal information-gathering methods, who authorised or ordered it, who knew it was going on and who participated in the undoubted cover-ups.
If something similar had happened at a bank, a charity or a government agency, the entire national press would be baying for those answers – indeed probably baying for a public inquiry to get the whole mess out in the open. But now, even when editors, former editors, top lawyers and a former chief executive are named in court, the event is barely reported.
So the industry cover-up – an insult to the values of honest journalism and to the British public – continues.
Where will these civil cases lead? To a lot of very expensive pay-outs by a company whose shareholders should have asked some tough questions long ago and who should surely now be considering whether they, in turn, should be suing to get some of their money back.
They will also lead to more revelations because one of the purposes of this week’s exercise was to force further disclosures about what has happened inside the company – including whether compromising records have been destroyed.
Ultimately, they could lead to prosecutions. Before too long the Metropolitan Police, which so disgraced itself by its failure to properly investigate hacking before 2010, should acknowledge the volume of new evidence that has emerged in the civil courts and start asking questions again. Questions such as who knew what, and when, and what did they do or didn’t do?
Until that happens, we will remain in a position that should be unacceptable in a civilised society, where important national institutions have engaged in wholesale criminal activity and all of those who held positions of responsibility are either hidden from view or allowed to say they simply had no idea.
After this week’s allegations, the position of Marcus Partington, the chief legal officer of the Mirror papers, is especially astonishing.
The complainants in the case are saying that he knew about hacking and other forms of illegal information-gathering at the Mirror newspapers while they were going on, and long before the company dropped its policy of blanket denial. He denies this.
Yet, even today, Partington is the in-house lawyer managing the company’s defence in the civil litigation. In other words, Mirror shareholders and directors have entrusted him with handling the company’s interests in a case where he is accused of complicity in law-breaking.
Even if there is some contorted interpretation of the idea of conflict of interests which can present this as acceptable, how wise can it be? Implicit in Partington’s denial is the assertion that he was the main in-house lawyer in a company that, on his watch, probably published thousands of articles on the basis of illegal methods – and yet he never noticed.
According to the logic of his position, he remained completely in the dark and missed every single clue. Now, would you pay a lawyer like that to handle your business?