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In light of the Guardian’s revelations that Liberal Democrat members of the Coalition Government were hacked while investigating Rupert Murdoch’s attempted takeover of the whole of BSkyB, we’re publishing online this article by former MP Paul Farrelly from our fourth-anniversary edition this year which describes how the select committee of MPs investigating phone hacking were also targeted by it
Ten years ago this month, Rupert Murdoch was readying himself for the imminent break-up of his life’s work, as reverberations from the phone-hacking scandal shook his global empire to the core.
The upheaval would see the now 92-year-old Australian tycoon lose control, in time, of Hollywood’s 21st Century Fox and satellite broadcaster Sky to US rivals, as investors demanded his blighted British newspapers be put firmly at arm’s length and in their place.
Meanwhile, back then, Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, former editors of the defunct News of the World, were huddled with lawyers, ahead of a criminal trial on conspiracy charges. And hundreds of thousands of people had just signed a petition demanding immediate implementation of press reforms advocated by the judicial inquiry into hacking, headed by Sir Brian Leveson, the previous autumn.
Today, Coulson has long since served his 18 months in prison; Brooks, who was cleared, is back at the helm of Murdoch’s News UK, overseeing the Sun, The Times, and Sunday Times; and the Leveson agenda, plus the promised Part Two of his inquiry – into relationships between journalists and the police – has been buried by the backtracking Conservative Government.
The hacking saga, however, is far from over.
I have just joined 170 others in the latest, fourth ‘wave’ of claims in the High Court. That takes the total to well over 1,500 so far – and there will be many more to come before the judges and lawyers wrap up their work (most likely in two or three years’ time).
The new batch includes cricketers Phil Tufnell and Michael Vaughan; film director Guy Ritchie; singer Jarvis Cocker; and Tom and Brigadier Andrew Parker Bowles, son and ex-husband of the country’s soon-to-be Queen; amid a clutch of celebrities, friends and families – and the likes of Doreen Lawrence and Gerry McCann, who have suffered unbearable family tragedy, ever in the public eye.
Among the politicians on the list, I am not alone. Former Cabinet ministers feature, plus serving MPs, a Metro Mayor and two retired colleagues – Tom Watson and Adrian Sanders – from the Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee, on which we investigated hacking from the outset 15 years ago.
The illegality, of course, spread far beyond the News of the World, which Murdoch shut down in July 2011, after revelations about the shameless hacking of murdered teenager Milly Dowler’s phone. Some of the new claims cite the Sun only, which has already settled cases, as has the Mirror, after a flurry of claims over the past few years.
Just last month, Associated Newspapers – owner of the high-and-mighty Daily Mail – tried to get a ground-breaking case brought by Baroness Lawrence, Prince Harry, Elton John and others thrown out as a ‘fishing expedition’. For good measure, the Mail denies claims of bugging, breaking and entering, blagging of medical records, payments to police and illegal use of data from private eyes (an issue over which Byline Investigates has led the fray).
To date, though, it is Murdoch who has borne the brunt.
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Since the first claim in 2008, the affair has cost his News Corporation more than £1 billion in pay-outs, plus legal fees, and the bill keeps rising by the day. It was the dogged pursuit of the Guardian’s Nick Davies, back in 2009, which exposed the first (secret) settlement, then the Milly Dowler outrage, opening the floodgates to the waves of litigation since.
On the DCMS Committee, we started delving in 2007, after the jailing of the News of the World’s Royal Editor Clive Goodman and arch-blagger Glenn Mulcaire. My interest was plain: I used to be a journalist and thought these people had brought shame on my profession.
The first inquiry in 2007, ‘Self-Regulation of the Press’, called for a shake-up of the toothless old Press Complaints Commission (PCC). This was when the newspaper had clammed up, sticking to its ‘one rogue reporter’ line, which the PCC and police swallowed whole.
Our second report in 2010, ‘Press Standards, Privacy and Libel’, demolished that preposterous defence and marked the beginning of the end for the PCC, too. The News of the World’s reaction was comically ferocious: “YOUR right to know is mired in MPs’ bias. But a free press is far too precious to lose,” bellowed the editorial, singling out Tom Watson and myself as ‘lefties’ toadying to the Guardian agenda.
A year later, they’d certainly changed their tune. “Thank You & Goodbye” ran the front page as – on 10 July 2011, after 168 years of publication – the final edition went to press.
By then, we had started our third inquiry, ‘News International and Phone Hacking’, looking at the catalogue of cover-ups and deceit. During that, when Rupert Murdoch appeared before us that July – with Brooks and his son James – it was the first time, quite remarkably, that he’d been called to public account since first landing on these shores to buy the Sun in 1969.
I’d moved the motion to summons them to a private committee session the week before. They had been evasive until then, but I knew they were now in the country, to apologise to Milly Dowler’s parents. So off to Wapping went the men from Westminster’s Serjeant at Arms, minus tights and swords, armed with a warrant and their Oyster cards. And that session was not just memorable for the protestor attacking Murdoch with a shaving foam pie. Or his then wife Wendy Deng’s impressive martial arts deployed in his defence. Or for being what Murdoch himself declared “the most humble day of my life”. It furthered the case for hacking victims, too.
Cutting through James’ Ivy League-accented monologue, for example, I asked Murdoch Snr why, as they’d apologised to the Dowlers, they were still paying Glenn Mulcaire’s legal bills. He agreed, croaky and to the point, that it was wrong and would stop. Cue Mulcaire suing for breach of contract, more disclosures and turning against the hands that fed him.
That involved the instrumental help, it should be said, of the late Max Mosley, who had successfully sued the News of the World over sensational stories of “Nazi-themed orgies”, lost one of his sons to suicide in the aftermath, and was key in making the first court claims possible, by underwriting the enormous legal costs of taking on the Murdoch empire.
This latest set now includes three of the 11 members of that DCMS Committee, which found key witnesses, and News International itself, in contempt of Parliament in 2012.
But why only now? Well, throughout all this, however feral they may have been, I never imagined that they would have been so stupid as to hack the phones of MPs investigating them for the very same.
But, as a witness in another case, last summer I first had strong grounds to suspect that I had been targeted from when I joined the Committee, and quite possibly after the closure of the News of the World and the start of Leveson, too.
So now we are going through the lengthy legal process to establish whether this extended, systematically, to other members of the DCMS Committee. If that did happen, that is more than just going after individual MPs, celebrities or the public at large for tittle tattle about their private lives – it is an organised attack on the democratic process.
And yet another strong argument for more robust, independent regulation – to try and ensure, with a free but responsible press, that such a scandal never happens again.
Paul Farrelly was the Labour MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme from 2001 to 2019 and is a former journalist with Reuters, The Independent on Sunday and The Observer. He was a member of Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee from 2005 to 2019, during its inquiries into phone-hacking and disinformation and fake news