Aug. 5 (Bloomberg) -- Actor Hugh Grant and former U.K. Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott attended a dinner to honor Nick Davies, the Guardian newspaper reporter who in July 2009 broke the first story that phone hacking at News Corp.’s News of the World newspaper might extend beyond a “rogue” reporter.
Each of the guests, including Grant’s former girlfriend Jemima Khan and TV soccer commentator Andy Gray, had played their own role in keeping the story from dying out over the last two years, said U.K. lawmaker Chris Bryant, who attended the dinner near the beginning of June at L’Escargot in London.
“It was an extraordinary gallimaufry of characters,” Bryant, a member of the opposition Labour Party, said of the dinner, using a term for a culinary hodge-podge.
The phone-hacking scandal threatened to drop from the headlines several times since it emerged after the arrests of a News of the World reporter and investigator in 2006, with police and prosecutors twice deciding not to open new probes. The news on July 4 this year that the paper hacked into the phone of a murdered schoolgirl made international headlines, leading News Corp. to shutter the 168-year-old tabloid and drop its bid for British Sky Broadcasting Group Plc and prompting the resignation of two company executives.
While the story about 13-year-old Milly Dowler’s phone put hacking on the front pages, civil lawsuits by celebrities and politicians led to the discovery of other evidence that had finally forced the police to open a new probe in January.
“It’s the civil actions that have led the way and have brought us to where we are,” Mark Thomson, a lawyer for the actress Sienna Miller, said in an interview. “All the critical documents in reality were with the police. We effectively got disclosure without redactions.”
The story could have disappeared from view after private investigator Glen Mulcaire and the paper’s royal reporter, Clive Goodman, were jailed in 2007. News Corp.’s News International unit said phone hacking was the work of one “rogue” reporter, and the police, who held 11,000 pages of evidence, decided to probe no further.
Miller’s suit in October produced proof that journalists beyond Goodman and Mulcaire were aware of phone hacking at the paper. Miller alleged that Ian Edmondson, a news editor, approved a contract for Mulcaire to eavesdrop on her messages. Operation Weeting, which opened after Miller’s claims became public, has led to 11 arrests, including Edmondson. No one has been charged.
Outside of the courts, celebrities kept the pressure on News Corp. Grant became an unofficial spokesman for victims, secretly taping an interview with former News of the World reporter Paul McMullan about phone hacking, and helping to start a “Hacked Off” campaign for a public inquiry.
“It’s good they kept on,” said Jenny Jones, a member of the London Assembly and the Metropolitan Police Authority, which scrutinizes the capital’s force. “I’ve got to say I didn’t have that much sympathy early on. I’m not sure if they understood the real extent of it all. Wasn’t it more about just how offended they were that it happened to them?”
The scandal triggered the resignations of News International Chief Executive Officer Rebekah Brooks, Dow Jones & Co. CEO Les Hinton and Metropolitan Police Commissioner Paul Stephenson. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron announced a public inquiry on July 8, two days after Parliament held an emergency debate on the topic sparked by Bryant.
Bryant, a former member of Parliament’s culture committee, questioned Brooks in 2003 about payments made to police. “We have paid the police for information in the past,” she said. She later said she had not personally authorized any such payments. Brooks was arrested on July 17 by officers probing phone hacking and possible payments to police. She hasn’t been charged.
Goodman and Mulcaire were convicted of plotting to tap into voice-mail messages of aides to Britain’s royal family in 2006. Mulcaire was also convicted of unlawfully intercepting voicemails for the supermodel Elle Macpherson, celebrity publicist Max Clifford, politician Simon Hughes, sports agent Sky Andrew and Gordon Taylor, the CEO of England’s Professional Footballers’ Association.
That Taylor wasn’t a member of the royal family, or included in the charges against Goodman, made Mark Lewis, Taylor’s lawyer, believe that phone hacking involved more than one reporter, he said.
In April 2008, Lewis obtained documents from the police who had investigated Goodman and Mulcaire that included a transcript of voice mails left for Taylor. It had been typed up by a junior reporter and marked “for Neville.” The only Neville on the News of the World at the time was Neville Thurlbeck, its chief reporter.
Before the end of the year, the paper paid 1 million pounds ($1.6 million) in legal fees and compensation and to Taylor and his colleagues in a settlement, which became the subject of Guardian reporter Davies’s story on July 8, 2009.
On July 13 of that year, Lewis says he was asked to promise his law firm that he wouldn’t represent other hacking victims, or be expelled from the partnership. He chose the latter.
“I was the first person who wasn’t involved in the criminality to lose their job,” Lewis, who was also at the Davies dinner, said in an interview. While he said he’d kept the Taylor case quiet because of his client’s best interest, “I knew that there were thousands of victims and that therefore one had to persevere. From a non-altruistic purpose, I knew there was a lot of work, but from an altruistic basis I knew that this was a cover-up.”
Lewis now represents about 70 possible hacking victims, including Dowler’s family. It was the July 4 story that News of the World reporters had in 2002 deleted messages from her phone that turned the phone-hacking saga from something that interested a few lawmakers to a national scandal.
“The revelation about the Dowler family was instrumental in causing the firestorm,” Miller’s lawyer, Thomson said.
News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch held his head in his hands as he met Dowler’s parents on July 15 to apologize, Lewis told reporters. Four days later, he and his son James, deputy chief operating officer of News Corp., were questioned by the culture committee.
James Murdoch told lawmakers that the Miller case led the company to uncover new evidence that they turned over to police, leading to Operation Weeting.
Bryant and fellow lawmaker Tom Watson have persisted alongside the celebrities. Watson, a member of the culture panel, quizzed News of the World officials in 2009 during a press standards inquiry. Fellow lawmakers used to say he was “obsessional,” he told the Independent newspaper on July 25.
Watson was the first lawmaker after committee Chairman John Whittingdale to pose questions to the Murdochs at the latest hearing, focusing early questions on Rupert.
“Tom’s the real hero,” said Bryant, who even as a lawmaker says he finds it “bizarre” that the case has thrust him into gatherings that include celebrities. The dinner in honor of Davies was the first time he’d met Jemima Khan.
“Now I bump into her everywhere,” said Bryant, who has filed his own phone-hacking suit. “Hugh Grant even cites me on ‘Question Time.’ It’s quite bizarre,” he said, referring to a British Broadcasting Corp. television program.
A story that’s exposed the worst excesses of journalists who Thomson said “thought they can get away with anything” has also shown reporters can serve to uncover wrongdoing. Thomson and Bryant praised Davies, the Guardian reporter, for chasing the story.
“The premium award for persistence goes to Nick Davies,” Professor George Brock, head of journalism at City University London, said in an interview. “Lawyers have played a secondary role in making sure that the process was always kept moving and that disclosures were gradually eked out to the point where it became a torrent where the disclosures got worse and worse.”
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