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‘Morals More Akin to the Mafia’: Former Minister on Illegality at the Murdoch Empire

From politicised phone hacking to aiding and abetting insurrection, the lawless threat of Murdoch’s organisations to democracy is only now becoming clear

Chris Huhne speaking to the media outside the Rolls Building in London on 5 December 2023. Photo: Jordan Pettitt/PA/Alamy

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Originally published by Hacked Off

Phone hacking is so yesterday, right? That is exactly what News Group (not to mention the Mirror and the Mail) want you to think. In fact, new revelations about the extent of illegality in news gathering continue to mount, and the latest raise not just questions about the media, but about politics, government and the survival of a meaningful British democracy.

News Corporation – owners of The Sun, Sun on Sunday, The Times, The Sunday Times and formerly of the defunct News of the World – are now in the dock for much more than just tabloid news-gathering by illegal means: they have been behaving like a gangster organisation out to intimidate their way to ever greater power and money. Moreover, some of the key past players are just as powerful in the present, including News group CEO Rebekah Brooks.

The claims against News group from three former senior Liberal Democrat ministers – Vince Cable, Norman Lamb and me – mark a new departure in the cases against News. Up until now, it has been possible for News Corporation to pretend that the only people involved in the illegal information gathering were unauthorised journalists and that the result was merely stories for tabloid titillation. However distressing and intrusive illegal information gathering such as the hacking of Millie Dowler’s phone might be, it was journalism of a sort.

News group closed down the News of the World, its only publication where it is prepared to admit fault. Its former editor, Andy Coulson, was convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison.

That line of defence has now fallen just as surely as the first line of defence deployed all those years ago when News said that the conviction of Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire merely represented the work of “rogue reporters” and “bad apples”.

As the evidence that phone-hacking and other means of illegal information-gathering – like “blagging” or pretending to be the person needing information from a bank account or mobile phone account -was far more widespread, News began to settle claims not only against the News of the World but also The Sun.

The total cost of lawyers and settlements is now more than £1.2 billion. Moreover, illegality stretches way beyond when any sensible outfit should have stopped – phone-hacking was going on even during the Leveson inquiry.

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My own claim – allotted to an earlier trial than my Lib Dem colleagues’ claims – was settled for a substantial six-figure sum in December. I would have loved to take the claim all the way to trial, and to have revealed all the shocking evidence of illegal activity by News group.

But News stuck to the strategy of offering more than I was likely to be offered by a judge. If you take a case to trial, and are offered less than you were previously offered in a settlement, you become liable for all the legal costs – not just mine, but Murdoch’s too. You can win, but be financially devastated.

Of course, News stated that I was free to go to trial to prove my case, but this is a billionaire thinking about “freedom”. Beggars are of course free to take private jets, but I can’t think of any who do. Money matters. The choice for me was a large cheque or bankruptcy.

The public documents, however, tell us a lot of the new elements in these cases. Now we know that the phone hacking was not merely journalistic, but was directed by News executives like Fred Michel who had no journalistic role. Michel was close to James Murdoch, who was the fourth child of Rupert and the family member in charge of UK operations. There were two objectives.

The first was to target political figures who were perceived to be unsympathetic to News and Murdoch in order to smooth the way for achieving the boss’s objectives. The second was to gather intelligence from the heart of government in order to further News’ objectives, in particular, the purchase of the 61 per cent of Sky – BskyB – that the Murdoch family did not own. Murdoch wanted to stop ministers referring the bid for a time-consuming review – and possible veto – by the competition authorities.

The reason this is so important is because it is about using illegal information-gathering for corporate purposes such spying and getting rid of opponents or obstacles. Does this remind you of anything? It is new to the UK – at least as far as we know – but it is the time-honoured practice of the FSB and before it of the KGB in finding “kompromat” – information that could be used either to blackmail, intimidate or destroy people.

In my case, Fred Michel, overseen by James Murdoch, ordered his journalistic henchmen to take me out. The sheer bravado of hacking me and others is breath-taking: at the time I was occasionally determining terrorist surveillance, a member of the National Security Council along with the chiefs of staff, of the war committee while we were in action in Libya, and privy to state secrets of potentially catastrophic import.


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Why me? I had asked too many pesky questions about phone hacking. When Nick Davies wrote his story in the Guardian pointing out that News was now settling with Gordon Taylor of the Professional Footballers Association, all my experience of nineteen years as a journalist on the Guardian, Economist and The Independent told me that this was no longer the work of a handful of “bad apples” as News maintained. Why would Clive Goodman, who was the Royal correspondent, be hacking Gordon Taylor whose information would principally be of interest to sports journalists or kiss-and-tell merchants interested in star footballers’ sex lives? For anyone who knew the specialist silos of a Fleet Street newsroom, this was simply not plausible.

As I was the Liberal Democrats’ shadow Home Secretary in the run-up to the 2010 general election, I pressed for the Metropolitan Police to reopen their inquiry. The Commissioner and the Assistant Commissioner told me in terms that there was nothing further to see here. They were far too beholden to News to want to do any such thing, but I persisted.

I asked parliamentary questions of the Labour ministers. I wrote a comment piece in the Guardian calling for a new police investigation. When Nick Davies revealed even more widespread illegal activity in early 2010, I even called for a judicial inquiry (which eventually became the Leveson inquiry).

When I attended The Sun’s Police Bravery awards – strictly in the line of duty – I noticed Rebekah Brooks, whom Rupert Murdoch treats as a family member, pointing me out to her neighbour Assistant Commissioner Yates of the Yard, who was steadfastly refusing to reopen the inquiry.

The evidence is that News tried to find some juicy tittle-tattle about me at the time of the Lib Dem leadership election, as they had with Simon Hughes and Mark Oaten. Their star reporter in the boudoirs of the nation, Neville Thurlbeck, who was convicted of illegal information-gathering, claimed publicly that the only reason they did not run anything in 2009 was that I was too boring.


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In fact, they had no evidence but when the net started closing on Andy Coulson – and I pressed on for a prosecution and judicial inquiry – Fred Michel said it was time to nobble me. When I became a cabinet minister after the 2010 election, they went into overdrive with phone hacking and surveillance.

The result of their efforts was a story in June 2010 about my affair with my partner Carina. Any chance of a civilised divorce went out the window as the tabloids humiliated my wife and Carina. It was not, though, the end of Murdoch’s efforts to get rid of me: the effort moved to The Sunday Times in 2011 where an extraordinary amount of time and money was spent grooming my ex-wife – and then failing to protect her as a source.

The net result: she told The Sunday Times that I had swapped speeding points with her. Murdoch had his kompromat. I resigned from government and Parliament when I pleaded guilty, and was sent to prison. And so was my ex-wife.

A similar, if not as extreme, pattern happened with Vince Cable. I was hacked 222 times, but Vince was hacked 380 times because he was directly responsible as Business secretary for referring company bids to the competition authorities if he suspected that a merger might result in monopoly power. Murdoch wanted to buy the 61 per cent of Sky that he did not own and announced a bid in the summer of 2010 at what was then the cheap price of £7 a share (Comcast subsequently bought Sky for more than £12.50 a share in 2018).

There was a flurry of phone-hacking of Vince, Norman Lamb (who as Nick Clegg’s
parliamentary private secretary at the time) and me around the Sky bid. Clearly, at some
point, Murdoch decided that Vince would be likely to refer the matter for investigation by
the Office of Fair Trading, so they went into overdrive to get the case taken out of his hands and passed to another minister. Again, Fred Michel was the orchestrator of this effort.

Vince’s particulars of claim say that News unlawfully obtained the covert recordings of his private conversations in his constituency surgery. These had been reported by the Daily Telegraph, but News wanted the originals to make sure that it had the power to take Vince out. Vince says that News made improper payments – that’s corrupt to you and me – and gave top job offers to Telegraph employees in exchange for the kompromat that would have him removed from deciding the News case.

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Fred Michel was also delegated to act as the purveyor of hissing menaces about what would happen to the Liberal Democrats if the Sky bid was referred. In Norman Lamb’s particulars of claim, Norman states that Michel made “threats… regarding the potential impact on coverage of the Liberal Democrats by News International should an adverse decision be made in respect of the News Corporation BSkyB bid”. This was just blackmail, pure and simple.

All this is far beyond what media moguls have traditionally done to exert influence: in the famous ditty well known in Fleet Street about a more innocent age, the Daily Herald’s staff used to sing of their proprietor: ““We have no party, creed or bias/ We want a peerage for Elias.”

Murdoch, by contrast, was never interested in baubles like peerages: he wanted more power and more money. The more power he had, the more difficult it was for any Government to resist his efforts to acquire more. His acquisition of The Times and The Sunday Times was waved through by Margaret Thatcher without a reference to the competition authorities, which is extraordinary given the dominant position that he attained in newsprint. Then he was able to ride roughshod over cross-media rules when he started Sky.

Another line of defence from News is that they were fully entitled to investigate and write about leading politicians. Indeed, I am the first to defend the right (and the importance) of the media in holding power to account. But let us be clear that this was nothing to do with that noble journalistic cause, in which I was conscripted when at the Independent both in investigations of Robert Maxwell’s pension fund fraud and the conflicts of interest at Lloyd’s of London.

First, this was a management decision to target me, not a journalistic one. And it clearly arose not from any concern about abuse of power on my part, but because I was asking in Parliament about abuse of power on theirs. Secondly, corporate espionage around the Sky bid hardly falls into any such category. My case rests.

The full illegality at Murdoch’s organisations, used to cow politicians in exchange for support or fear of attack, is only now becoming clear. First, there was the curtain lifted on Fox News by the Dominion voting machine libel, and now light is increasingly being shone on News by the phone-hacking claims. In both cases, there is a contempt for a democratic process and for elected officials. In the Fox case, Murdoch knew that Joe Biden had been fairly elected, but Fox continued to perpetrate libels about the election to shore up its Trumpmaniac base. In the UK, News Corporation thought nothing of illegal activity against elected officials to clear obstacles from its path to more power and money.

Rupert Murdoch is not a normal media baron. The pursuit of truth has been trumped again and again by the pursuit of power. He has been running companies whose morals are more akin to the mafia than the media. He has certainly committed a contempt of parliament. He has undermined the democratic process in the United States and Britain. He has corrupted leading politicians to attain his empire-building ends. It is high time to call him out.

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