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Scotland Yard is facing growing calls to re-investigate Piers Morgan and a “generation” of former Mirror Group Newspapers editors for systemic newsroom criminality and years of cover-up, Byline Times can reveal.
As claimants saw a bid to overturn a time-bar on hundreds of potential civil suits against the publisher adjourned yesterday, victims, lawyers and a former detective joined Prince Harry’s demand for the police and Crown Prosecution Service to do “its duty”.
It follows a significant High Court victory for the Duke of Sussex last month in which Mr Justice Fancourt found industrial scale unlawful information gathering (UIG) went on at MGN’s three national newspapers between 1996 and 2011.
Among extensive findings of wrongdoing, the judge said MGN executives not only knew about the illegal activity and “could and should” have stopped it, but instead of doing so “turned a blind eye to what was going on, and positively concealed it”.
Now media lawyer Jonathan Coad; actress Denise Welch; and former Crimewatch presenter, journalist and police officer Jacqui Hames are calling on Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley to re-open Operation Golding, the phone-hacking investigation that saw Morgan interviewed in February 2014.
Despite uncovering significant evidence and putting substantial public resources into Golding, former director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders decided in 2015 that there was “insufficient” prospect of winning a conviction “in any” of 10 potential cases against MGN employees.
However, Jonathan Coad believes the ruling in the case of Duke of Sussex and Others vs MGN Ltd offers a compelling case for investigation of the Mirror Group over findings that lawyers and some board members hid endemic criminality, misled shareholders, the stock market, a public inquiry, and the High Court itself.
“Prince Harry’s seismic win over Mirror Group Newspapers has summoned the chickens home to roost,” he told Byline Times. “Despite the publisher’s expenditure of millions in legal fees to cover it up, the judge found such a plethora of law-breaking at Piers Morgan’s Mirror that for any public confidence to survive in the criminal justice system as applies to the behemoths of Fleet Street, there must now be a full investigation by the Metropolitan Police.”
The denials of knowledge of newsroom crimes – offered under oath by a succession of former Mirror bosses to the 2011-12 Leveson Inquiry into press misconduct – ought also to be probed, according to Mr Coad.
The 2005 Inquiries Act makes it a specific offence to knowingly give wrong or distorted evidence to a public inquiry. And Prince Harry’s lawyers were able to prove that MGN continued to hack phones for stories – the industry practice that sparked the inquiry – even after Lord Justice Leveson was conducting the televised questioning of witnesses.
“Justice Fancourt’s findings exposed an entire generation of editors, lawyers, and some board members conspiring together in a form of organised crime which goes far beyond the mere tabloid espionage at the heart of Harry’s case,” Mr Coad added.
“Now arise issues such as the impact on the Mirror shareholders, the lies the company told the public and authorities, as well as lies individuals appear to have told the Leveson inquiry under oath.”
Following the 386-page ruling on 15 December, Scotland Yard said it was “carefully considering” its content before taking decisions on further action.
Outside court, Prince Harry’s lawyers read a statement in which he urged UK authorities “to do their duty for the British public and investigate bringing charges against the company and those who have broken the law”.
Scotland Yard told Byline Times this week that its position has not changed and that the judgment remains under review.
Jacqui Hames is calling on her former employers to heed lessons of 2006 when it failed to properly investigate Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World, following the hacking of Royal Household phones by private investigator Glenn Mulcaire and former royal editor Clive Goodman.
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“It’s clear that opportunities to properly investigate crimes at the News of the World in 2006 were lost, creating a perception that the newspaper group used its influence on the Met to cover up the sheer scale of offending,” she said.
“In 2015, the Met wrote off large amounts of public money by aborting Operation Golding after pressure from the press, calling it a witch-hunt, portraying themselves as victims. Perhaps if it had continued, the successful legal action brought by Prince Harry and others in 2023 using the wealth evidence the Met had gathered, would have been unnecessary.
“On reflection, it’s very hard not to join the dots between the newspaper industry and political influence in the Met’s decisions. The public interest must not once again be sacrificed by self-interest. We cannot let this pass unchallenged.”
The voicemails of Denise Welch were hacked and her hotel room illegally bugged by MGN in 2002 and 2003 at the order of Sunday Mirror editors Tina Weaver and Mark Thomas (both Morgan proteges) who have never faced criminal charges despite clear admissions of wrongdoing – and the payment of damages to victims – on their behalf by their former employers.
Welch likened the lack of official action to the Post Office Horizon scandal or the enabling of Jimmy Savile. She said: “So many lives were devastated by the top decision-makers at Mirror Group, yet none has faced justice despite masses of evidence coming out in Prince Harry’s case and hundreds of others.
“It went far beyond phone-hacking, which is all Piers Morgan denies. My hotel rooms were bugged by people working directly for Mirror editors. I was then entrapped into talking about things that were my private business, which was incredibly cruel. Like many, I lived for years without trusting a soul. The impact was huge for my family and I. I believed for a long time that an actor friend had sold a story on me. Friendships were wrecked.
“At that time, my young son was seriously ill in Alder Hey hospital and needed life-saving surgery. The thought that people were listening in to my life during this distressing time and continued to do so for years sickens me.
“But the people at the top of these papers, who benefited most, have been allowed to escape when they should face justice. I do not know why they are able to get away with it. We’ve seen what happens with Jimmy Savile or the Post Office scandal when a blind eye is turned to wrongdoing. The police should certainly be investigating.”
The calls for action come as MGN’s former top lawyer, Marcus Partington, faces a separate investigation by the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority over his involvement in cover-ups at the company. The SRA announcement comes four years after this newspaper’s sister site Byline Investigates first asked the regulator whether it was looking into his professional conduct.
They also come as speculation mounts over Gary Jones, the Editor of the Daily and Sunday Express, newspapers with the same owners as MGN – Reach plc. Sources at Reach have told Byline Times to expect a decision on his future with the firm “in due course”. When asked, the company declined to comment.
In December, Justice Fancourt found that Jones was one among a string of Morgan-connected editors and senior staff heavily involved in the commission of illegal spying on which MGN’s three national newspapers – the Daily Mirror, The Sunday Mirror and The Sunday People – spent millions of pounds between 1995 and 2011.
Jones was singled out in particular. He obtained private bank account details for, among others, Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, former New Labour Downing Street director of communications Alastair Campbell, former New Labour Minister Peter Mandelson, and members of the Bank of England Credit Committee.
The judge ruled that other key MGN figures, some of whom now hold senior roles at other organisations, were aware or likely aware of illegal activity – including Richard Wallace, now Piers Morgan’s boss at Murdoch-owned TalkTV and Neil Wallis, former editor of The People who in 2015 was acquitted of phone-hacking charges relating to his time as Deputy Editor at the News of the World.
Others include Morgan’s Mirror Deputy Editor Tina Weaver (for whom he advocated in 2001 to become Sunday Mirror editor), Morgan’s former Features Editor Mark Thomas, and Sunday Mirror and The People Senior Editors Nick Buckley and James Scott – the journalist who handed Morgan one of his biggest Mirror scoops hacked straight from the voicemails of former England football manager Sven Goran Eriksson and television presenter Ulrika Jonsson.
Justice Fancourt said that, while most of the directors of Trinity Mirror plc – the former name for MGN – did not know about illegal activity, two did. Paul Vickers, the group legal director, “certainly knew about phone hacking from about the end of 2003”; while the ex-Mirror chief executive Sly Bailey knew of hacking.
The board executives “knew about the illegal activity that was going at their newspapers and could and should have put a stop to it”, the judge said. Instead, “they turned a blind eye to what was going on, and positively concealed it”.
MGN abandoned a long-held policy of paying off claimants before they got to court in order to allow Prince Harry’s trial to proceed last May and June. The company – having vacated several trial dates – was keen to test the law of ‘limitation’ in the hope of time-barring potentially hundreds, if not more than a thousand, future claims from proceeding under a six-year time-out rule.
Despite the damage it suffered in the trial – it emerged yesterday that MGN is facing a costs bill from the ‘other side’ of £2 million – the company still considered it a victory, because it was able to include two of the weakest claims on the issue of limitation (among the many in the wings) around which to argue its point, and in the cases of Fiona Wightman, former wife of comedian Paul Whitehouse, and the actress Nikki Sanderson it won, even though the judge found they had indeed been victims of illegal behaviour.
But yesterday that victory was called into doubt as a bid was launched to appeal against the judge’s view that the pair ought to have known sooner they had cases to bring, despite the concealment of a lot of criminality by MGN.
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Justice Fancourt was presented with four grounds under which his judgment is said to have misapplied the law – among them a ruling they should as individuals have acted as “hyper-vigilant” “detectives” in pursuing their claims.
His decision on whether to grant an appeal will be heard at a date to be set. However, even if he denies it, the matter is likely to be taken out of his hands and referred to the Court of Appeal for review.
Meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers (NGN) also ought to face investigation into its illegal scrutiny of political opponents to a bid to buy Sky TV in 2010-11, according to former Liberal Democrat Minister Chris Huhne.
In December, Huhne won his case for phone-hacking against NGN. Last week, in an interview with former Guardian investigative journalist Nick Davies at London’s Frontline Club, Huhne said he hoped Met Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley would look into prosecuting senior executives at the company.
Huhne said in December that he believed the settlement “vindicates my long-standing claim that News Corporation directors and managers targeted me to get rid of a political opponent”.
“My case is unprecedented because the unlawful information-gathering was directed not by journalists but by News Corp executives,” he added. “They had two objectives: corporate espionage to help Murdoch’s bid for Sky, and bull-dozing pesky politicians out of the way.”
In a statement following the settlement, a spokesman said it “strongly denied that there was any corporate motive or direction to obtain information unlawfully”, and that the stories published “were legitimate and in the public interest”.
Dan Evans is a phone-hacking whistleblower and was a witness for the claimants in Sussex and Ors vs MGN Ltd and Gulati and Ors vs MGN Ltd. Tom Latchem was a trainee reporter with MGN and worked for the company between 2006 and 2009
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