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This week, News Group Newspapers – the publisher of The Sun and the now defunct News of the World – agreed a six-figure settlement with former Liberal Democrat minister Chris Huhne over a phone-hacking and intrusion claim. It also settled 11 other cases, including those of singer Melanie Chisholm, and actors Keith Allen and Catherine Tate.
Rupert Murdoch’s company News Corp has now paid out a total of £1.2 billion in settlement of claims of unlawful privacy intrusion.
In the latest edition of Prospect magazine’s Media Confidential podcast, its Editor Alan Rusbridger – under whose editorship the Guardian newspaper exposed the phone-hacking scandal in 2011 – interviews former Guardian journalist Nick Davies, whose reporting revealed how claims of ‘one rogue reporter’ masked the widespread use of hacking at the News of the World.
In this extract from the podcast, Davies explores the significance of the Huhne settlement.
‘A Weapon’ to Attack those ‘Causing a Political Obstruction’
There were two big headlines. First, the Murdoch people carried on hacking voicemails for many years longer than we have previously understood, and did so in a way which was so reckless.
The second big headline is that, whereas all of the hacking we knew about already was about trying to get stories about people’s personal lives, this, or at least a significant part of it, appears to have been devoted to advancing Rupert Murdoch’s commercial interests, specifically his attempt to take over all of BSkyB.
The implication of that is that there were senior people organising it. It wouldn’t be the familiar names from the News of the World newsroom. It would be somebody high up in the hierarchy. And somewhere up there, there’s not only Rupert Murdoch but more immediately on the scene his son James.
I would describe it as a strong case of circumstantial evidence, which falls short of anything like a smoking gun. There isn’t an email from A to B saying ‘guess what, I just hacked Chris Huhne’s email and discovered the following info’. So, as circumstantial cases go, it’s strong, but I think it’s not without doubt.
When we talk about the circumstantial evidence here, some of it is familiar stuff. People saying ‘oh yeah, I remember my mobile phone would go, and when I picked it up, there was nobody there’. (If you’re going to hack someone’s voicemail, you have to get through when they’re not answering the phone). ‘I would show up for some meeting and there would be a photographer there. How the hell did they know I was going to be there? How on earth did they get this information?’ So, there’s that kind of foundation layer of circumstantial evidence.
There are two other types of evidence extracted from the Murdoch company on the orders of the judge hearing the Huhne case.
First, records of payments to private investigators. And the second – which is the most important – is the records of phone calls made from Murdoch HQ in Wapping to the three senior Lib Dem MPs we’re talking about here: Chris Huhne, Vince Cable and Norman Lamb.
What you see over a period of time is nearly 900 calls coming from the Wapping Murdoch building to these three MPs. The three MPs say ‘but we weren’t getting calls from The Sun or the News of the World’, which are the people involved here. ‘What are these calls for?’ And some of them are suspiciously short. A reporter calls a politician, it’s going to be a complicated conversation, at least 10 minutes, maybe longer. This is a minute or two, over and over again.
The private investigator invoices, and the calls from Wapping, happen in clusters. If we apply that circumstantial evidence to a timeline, you see a very interesting picture developing.
First of all, in late 2005, and early 2006, Charles Kennedy was the Leader of the Liberals. There’s a problem with alcohol. He loses the leadership. There’s an election with four candidates. And there is tremendous activity by the News of the World and The Sun hiring private investigators. We can see the payments going through, and the overwhelming majority of these short, nearly 900, mysterious calls are coming through the main switchboard cluster around the Charles Kennedy story and the election bid.
Two of the targets of that hacking, Simon Hughes and Mark Oaten, have separately settled, and it’s been accepted that they were being hacked. Later that year, everything goes wrong when the police bust the News of the World‘s royal correspondent Clive Goodman in August 2006, seven months after the election hacking. Come the spring of 2009, as far as the official version of events is concerned, all of the phone-hacking has stopped.
Suddenly, the News of the World and The Sun pick up on Chris Huhne as a target. He’s seeing somebody he’s not married to. Suddenly, you’ve got this cluster of PI (private investigator) activity and mysterious, short phone calls from the Wapping hub number. That suggests to me that the Murdoch company really does think it’s above the law and it can do what the hell it likes.
They carry on doing that with clusters after the Guardian starts publishing these stories that cause them such trouble. Within days of the Milly Dowler story in July 2011, the are clusters of PI activity and mysterious hub calls going into Vince Cable. There’s a phase in December 2011 when Lord Justice Leveson is sitting, hearing evidence based on the material that’s come out. They’re still hacking phones while that’s going on. This is reckless to the point of madness.
There’s a really interesting phase around Murdoch’s attempt to take over BSkyB.
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We have the election in May 2010; the Coalition is now in Government. On 10 June, the Murdochs’ very smooth French lobbyist, Fred Michel, goes in to see Norman Lamb, a senior Lib Dem MP who is, at this point, parliamentary private secretary to the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. And guess what? There are six short hub calls to Lamb’s phone on and around that day, 10 June, and six others to Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, who’s going to decide whether to issue an ‘intervention notice’ and start investigating the competition implications of the BSkyB bid.
That cluster of phone calls at that moment looks very much like somebody on the commercial side not looking for blackmail stuff and kompromat, but just trying to find out which way the ball is bouncing so that Fred can do better than perhaps he might be able to at the meeting with Norman Lamb.
At the beginning of September 2009, The New York Times (thanks to Alan Rusbridger’s initiative) publish a big story on phone-hacking. CEO Rebekah Brooks writes to Fred Michel an email saying ‘what can we do?’ Michel writes back in terms, this is slightly chilling: “The key will be for prominent Lib Dems, like Clegg and Huhne, to stay silent on it, and I think they will.”
A few weeks later, Vince Cable says ‘I’m issuing an intervention notice. We’re going to investigate this bid’. Two things happen.
One, we get lots of hub calls coming in – there’s lots and lots of apparent evidence of espionage on Cable, the Business Secretary handling this huge deal, and on Norman Lamb, Nick Clegg’s right-hand.
Will Lewis, senior executive in the Murdoch company, persuaded his old pals at the Daily Telegraph to send two young freelance journalists to Vince Cable’s constituency meeting, where they secretly recorded him saying, essentially, ‘I’m going to stop Murdoch doing this’. That recording meant that Vince Cable lost his job. Vince Cable didn’t go quiet, so he lost his job. All of this is surrounded by these hub calls and PI invoices.
Granted, there’s an element of doubt. But I think we are entitled to say that the Murdoch company used the News of the World as a weapon to try to attack the people who were causing a political obstruction and to appear to have engaged in illegal criminal activity to gather evidence which would assist them in doing that.
When people criticise Rupert Murdoch, they often think it’s all about him intervening in the editorial line of his papers. That’s actually the secondary issue. The primary one is Murdoch undermines, and occasionally overthrows, democratically elected governments. And never before, in all the research that I was doing, have we been able to see it happening in such fine detail.
Listen to the full interview in Prospect magazine’s Media Confidential podcast