Phone hacking, corruption and remedies

04 Nov 2014

Originally published in the Solicitors Journal.

By Steven Heffer, Partner and Head of Media and Culture group

Leveson has made only limited progress in ensuring victims of the press are protected and that they can easily seek redress for wrongdoing when it occurs.

In April 2011 the News of the World (NOTW) admitted being responsible for intercepting the voicemails of many individuals using the services of a private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, before his arrest in 2006. There had already been some civil actions seeking damages for misuse of private information and many more were to follow. The newspaper was shut down in July 2011.

Compensation scheme

The publishers News Group Newspapers Ltd (NGN) and its parent company News International publicly apologised for the actions of NOTW and announced that it would establish a voluntary compensation scheme to speed up the process by which victims of these activities could be compensated, as an alternative to litigation.

Sir Charles Gray, a former High Court judge and arbitration expert, was appointed by NGN to act as an independent adjudicator to assess applications for compensation under the scheme. The scheme was to operate according to a new streamlined process aimed at reducing costs and complexity of the court procedure and to afford a speedy, fair and efficient means to ensure that victims of voicemail interception were adequately compensated.


NGN announced that this would enable victims to:

  • obtain quicker and more efficient access to justice without the delays and complexity of the court process;
  • obtain an uplift of compensation of ten per cent on what they might expect to receive from the courts;
  • bear no risk in relation to costs; and
  • be able to obtain confidentiality by request, without having to make a formal application to the court.


In addition to the court proceedings where settlements have been well publicised, statistics concerning the scheme published in March 2013 revealed that 271 applicants had been accepted into the scheme, most of which have now been settled.

It was intended that adjudications and settlements would be published on the compensation scheme website. There was a section headed ‘published adjudications and settlements’, but nothing ever appeared, although it is known that Sir Charles Gray did make adjudications in several cases. These have not been made public.

None of the court cases have, to date, resulted in judgments and so there is still no accepted public guidance from the court or the compensation scheme as a tariff for the award of compensation.

Most settlements have been in the range of £10,000 to £60,000. However, there have been much higher settlements in some cases.

After the scheme had been in operation for less than 18 months, NGN decided that it would be closed to any new applications received after 8 April 2013. It is surprising that the compensation scheme was closed at a time when a new conspiracy had just come to light involving the features department of the NOTW and when a raft of new potential victims were being notified by the police (Operation Pinetree and Golding).

These new victims are unable to claim under the compensation scheme and have had to resort to the usual court processes with all the costs and uncertainties associated with those procedures.

News International (a brand forever connected to the phone hacking scandal) announced it was changing its name to News UK in June 2013. A statement published by News International said the change followed “the fundamental changes of governance and personnel that have taken place to address the problems of the recent past”. New policies and procedures were said to be in place across the company, its main titles were all under new leadership and the executive team was transformed.

Ongoing investigations

There are various investigations linked to the phone hacking affair.

  • Operation Weeting

More than 5,000 people were targeted by the phone hacking operations, according to Scotland Yard. Of those, the Metropolitan Police said 1,000 individuals were ‘likely victims’, where there was additional evidence to suggest that hacking could have, or did take place, such as PIN numbers, unique voicemail numbers called, recorded audio messages and ‘specific references to individuals in a hacking context’.

  • Operation Pinetree

At the phone hacking criminal trial, NOTW journalist Dan Evans admitted hacking individuals on behalf of the features department. The investigation Operation Pinetree is looking into this second suspected conspiracy to intercept mobile telephone voicemails at the NOTW, and a third inquiry, Operation Golding, is investigating a separate phone hacking conspiracy at Mirror Group Newspapers. Court actions have been commenced by a number of the victims and some claims have been settled.

Very recently, the publishers of the Mirror admitted to hacking despite its previous emphatic denials.

The Metropolitan Police confirmed in January 2014 that it holds a large amount of material relating to Operation Pinetree (including transcripts of interviews, statements and lists of individuals), which has been, and continues to be, reviewed and assessed in order to establish whether criminal offences may have occurred. Officers have identified approximately 1,600 individuals who are being notified that they may have been victims of unlawful activity.

The Met were not able to provide an indication of the split between the individuals who form part of Operation Pinetree (NOTW) or Operation Golding (Mirror Group) because in the majority of cases the presence of a name within Evans’ contact list could apply to either or both inquiries.

Notifications to potential victims were delayed due to the phone hacking criminal trial which ended in June 2014, so many potential victims have only been notified recently by the police.

As the compensation scheme has closed down, potential victims are now in the unsatisfactory position of having to investigate at their own expense whether they have civil claims and, if so, whether to pursue these by litigation.

  • Operation Elveden

This police inquiry relates to corrupt payments made by various newspapers to public officials employed by the police, the Ministry of Defence or the prison service. There have been 14 convictions of public officials for taking or seeking payments, seven of them police officers. There are 59 people from Elveden still to face trial and further trials are to take place throughout this autumn and next year. Thirty-one people are on police bail waiting to find out whether they will be charged under Operation Elveden and a further 20 are awaiting a decision.

Some civil claims have already been made (seeking damages for misuse of private information) and further claims will follow against the public authorities and/or the newspapers and journalists concerned.

  • Operation Tuleta

This investigation relates to allegations of computer hacking, related to the phone hacking scandal. Altogether there are 11 linked police operations, of which the above are the main inquiries.

Press reports suggest that the Metropolitan Police and Crown Prosecution Service are also believed to be looking into a possible corporate prosecution. Senior newspaper executives have been or are being interviewed under caution.

Name change

According to campaign group Hacked Off and other commentators, the new Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) is little more than a change of name from the discredited Press Complaints Commission (PCC) and is overseen by the same people who created, controlled and defended that failed organisation.

It is argued that IPSO is a sham regulator and does not come close to meeting Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations.

The Media Standards Trust has said that IPSO met only 12 of the 38 criteria that Lord Justice Leveson said were essential to avoid a repeat of the failures of past self-regulation.

It has been pointed out that there will be no access to justice through low-cost arbitration for those who allege defamation or intrusion by newspapers, as Lord Justice Leveson had recommended.

A further organisation (the IMPRESS project) has been launched, which claims it is developing plans for “press regulation which is independent of politicians and press owners, affordable for small publishers and websites, and accountable to the public”. It will include an arbitration scheme.

Despite the Leveson Inquiry, numerous criminal convictions and civil claims, it seems that there is a long way to go before victims of the press can feel that adequate protections are in place or that they can easily seek redress for wrongdoing when it occurs.

 

Additional information