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The former Liberal Democrat Cabinet minister Chris Huhne today accepted a six-figure sum from the publisher of The Sun and News of the World in settlement of a phone-hacking and intrusion claim – and promptly demanded a new police investigation into the Murdoch company.
In a statement outside court, Huhne accused named executives, including current News UK chief executive Rebekah Brooks, of targeting him with the aim of destroying a vocal critic of the media multinational owned by Rupert Murdoch.
“News Corp was out to get me,” he said. “My case is unprecedented because the unlawful information-gathering was directed not by journalists but by News Corp executives. The Metropolitan Police should reopen its investigation.”
He had wanted the case to go to trial but late in the day the Murdoch company offered a settlement sufficiently large that he could not refuse it without assuming unacceptable financial risks.
Although the company had earlier drafted a defence challenging some of his allegations, Huhne asked today: “Why would they now pay up if they could prove I was wrong?”
His case is significant in several respects besides the questions it raises about the role of managers.
It is the first of three brought by senior Lib Dem politicians (Sir Vince Cable and Sir Norman Lamb will follow) alleging hacking and other illegal information gathering that was driven by political rather than journalistic motives.
It takes this intrusive activity into the highest reaches of government. Huhne presented evidence (some of it challenged in the News defence) of an intensive campaign against him that continued when he was a Cabinet minister in the Cameron Coalition Government, and sitting on ministerial committees such as the National Security Committee.
He presented evidence that these activities continued at least until 2011 – five years after the company publicly claimed it had been halted.
It is the latest case to include extensive allegations of illegal activities by The Sun newspaper. Hacking by the now defunct News of the World has long been beyond any possibility of denial, but the Murdoch organisation has yet to admit the involvement of The Sun – despite having already paid large sums to settle a number of claims against it.
As Huhne said in his statement, News has now paid to settle a claim that alleges the involvement in, or at least the knowledge of, illegal activities by senior executives.
“The key News corporation executives were… a director in charge of political and external affairs, and long-standing Murdoch lieutenant Rebekah Brooks. Both were overseen by family member James Murdoch,” he said.
A new police investigation should focus on directors and managers, he added.
Brooks was among Murdoch executives tried in 2014 for offences related to illegal news gathering and a subsequent cover-up. She was acquitted, while Andy Coulson – former Sun editor and director of communications for Prime Minister Cameron – was jailed.
Huhne’s own political career ended in 2013 when he was jailed for perverting the course of justice in relation to a motoring offence.
According to the campaigning group Hacked Off, today’s settlement brings the total spent by the Murdoch organisation on settling hacking-related claims and associated legal costs to £1.2 billion over about a dozen years. All of Huhne’s legal costs are being met by The Sun’s holding company, News Group Newspapers.
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His claim against the papers was built largely on information that the company had been legally obliged to disclose, and it painted a picture of multi-faceted surveillance and intrusion by Murdoch employees on a nightmarish scale.
Among the allegations were that:
In two periods of a few days, each in 2009 and 2010, private investigators were paid a total of more than £10,000 to follow him.
Between 2006 and 2011, 222 calls were made from the Murdoch headquarters at Wapping to Huhne’s mobile phone which bore the hallmarks of voicemail interception.
Some 20 private investigators and investigation companies were commissioned for tasks including the illegal accessing of Huhne’s medical records, credit standing, utility bills, bank details and telephone records including his list of ‘friends and family’ numbers.
Messages allegedly accessed included both highly private matters – Huhne’s marriage was breaking up and he was forming a new relationship – and highly sensitive political communications with political figures not only in the Lib Dems but with others such as Labour Home Secretaries Charles Clarke and Alan Johnson.
Huhne said today that the “issues in this case are much wider than previous phone-hacking cases”.
“News Corporation ordered unlawful information gathering in the UK that demonstrated exactly the same contempt for the democratic process shown by Fox when it knowingly lied about Trump winning the presidential election,” he added.
“Searching for political kompromat, spying on government ministers for political gain and knowingly telling repeated lies to maintain sales and ratings should all be utterly unacceptable in any responsible media company, yet are the stock in trade of the two Murdoch companies [News and Fox].
“The US, UK and Australian political systems have allowed the Murdochs to become far too powerful. I confidently predict there will be little or no reporting of this settlement in The Times, Sunday Times, Sun, Sun on Sunday, TalkTV, Times Radio, New York Post, Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones, Marketwatch, Australian, Sky News Australia, News.com.au, Fox News or Fox TV stations because they are all owned by the Murdochs.”
A News UK spokeswoman told The Times that Huhne’s allegations were denied.
She said: “It is strongly denied that there was any corporate motive or direction to obtain information unlawfully. Huhne was a senior politician and stories published were legitimate and in the public interest.”