Barely noticed by many, the Leveson Inquiry into the media, phone hacking, etc, is slowly unfolding in London, its promise of 46 star witnesses, main players, etc, all held off to some time in the distant future. The inquiry was designed to take some of the temperature out of the phone-hacking story, so it could be properly considered as part of a full inquisitorial process, i.e. rendered so legalistic and tedious as to remove any intrinsic interest from it.
Good plan by the government, but it reckoned without the determination of News Corp to screw itself up through arrogance, nihilism and a general inability to understand what the humans care about. For, weeks after the organisation appeared to hit its nadir — with Rupert Murdoch having a grovelling meeting with the parents of Milly Dowler, the murdered teenager whose mobile his News of the World hacks hacked — the organisation again is in the spotlight, for the intimidation and surveillance of lawyers representing people who’ve had their phones hacked, and are taking legal action against News Corp.
For eight years, parallel to the process of phone hacking, News employed Derek Webb, a former cop, and expert at tailing, to follow hundreds of celebrities, whose phone message banks it was gleefully hacking into. Webb followed everyone from members of the royal family, celebs, sports stars, former, and then-current politicians, including the Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith. Some of those under surveillance include those, such as London mayor Boris Johnson, who’ve been vociferous defenders of the Murdoch empire in the past.
Much of this is unquestionably legal — though having sitting politicians under general surveillance may cross the line — and most papers have employed private investigators for this sort of work from time to time. Webb claims to have knowledge of the source of information as to who should be followed — i.e. the phone hacking — and that is possibly true. He is yet another headache that News has created for itself by its contemptuous attitude to human beings, cutting him off once the paper closed, with none of the generous loyalty payments that the inner circle of News fall guys and gals — Rebekah Brooks, Les Hinton, etc — received.
No sooner was the story broken by the BBC than it was widened by The Guardian, which revealed that part of Webb’s duties in latter days had been to follow the numerous lawyers that News’s victims had accumulated, and directed against the company. Webb was rolled over to focus on two in particular — Mark Lewis and Charlotte Harris. Lewis represented Gordon Taylor, the head of the Professional Footballers’ Association, whom News paid £750,000 in an out-of-court settlement signed off on by James Murdoch and the News board. He also represented Milly Dowler’s parents. Harris represented Max Clifford, the uber-agent who launched one of the first lawsuits against News, and ran the case that ultimately caused the second resignation of former News of the World editor Andy Coulson.
For their pains, News sought out the deepest details of their private life. Harris was tailed in order to try and prove the claim — a false one — that she was having an affair with a fellow solicitor. Lewis was tailed, but so more importantly was his ex-wife, on what appears to have been a fishing expedition. Both solicitors’ children were also followed. The task involved a whole team of investigators. Related to this was a complex campaign against Lewis, attempting to prevent him from representing other phone-hacking victims (following his success with Gordon Taylor), and to have former associates launch legal action against him.
The revelations, lurking in the police files — as was information that only one in 10 of the nearly 5000 hacking victims had ever been notified of the fact — appear to have been held back ahead of James Murdoch’s appearance before the Commons committee whose far more exciting inquiry is running parallel to Leveson. Murdoch already has to answer some very tricky questions about his denial of any knowledge of a culture of hacking beneath him.
That is already rendered difficult by the huge payment to Taylor that Murdoch authorised (£300,000 above the maximum Taylor could have got in the courts), and the existence of an email, now known as “For Neville”, which establishes one NotW editor transferring information on hacking to another. Former NotW legal chief Tom Crone has now informed MPs that Murdoch would have seen this email in May 2008, when hacking was still rife. Crone had also denied any knowledge of Mark Lewis’s and Charlotte Harris’s private life, a claim flatly contradicted by the explicit legal and investigative campaigns against them.
Solicitors Lewis and Harris may have no criminal recourse, but both are thinking of launching civil suits for breach of privacy against News. The company would hardly notice another couple of lawsuits — yet each new action peels away more News supporters, loosens more information. Doubtless James Murdoch intends to tell the full truth at the inquiry tomorrow — but anyone who had a mind to dissemble would run into the problem of many lawyers and all liars, that of keeping one’s story straight. We won’t be the only ones turning on the Beeb, pouring a cuppa, and making a day of it.