News Corp. for the first time publicly detailed bribery by a journalist at its now-defunct News of the World, telling a court that a former editor agreed to pay a prison guard to get a story about a child killer.
Matt Nixson, a features editor for five years at the paper, told a reporter in a March 7, 2009, e-mail to pay 750 pounds ($1,150) to the guard for details about a man who murdered two girls. Nixson then said to “chuck her some more money later,” since she wanted 1,000 pounds, News Corp. said in court papers filed Dec. 13 in London and made public yesterday.
The disclosure is part of the company’s defense in Nixson’s lawsuit claiming he was wrongfully fired from News Corp.’s Sun tabloid, where he last worked, as the company sought to contain a phone-hacking scandal. News Corp. closed the News of the World in July after it was revealed it hacked into the voice mail of a different murdered schoolgirl in 2002.
Nixson “was guilty of gross misconduct, or at any rate, conduct justifying dismissal without notice or pay,” members of the company’s Management and Standards Committee, which is running the investigation, said in the court filing.
Alison Downie of Goodman Derrick LLP in London, Nixson’s lawyer, said in an e-mailed statement that “my client wishes to make it absolutely clear that he neither bribed, nor ever admitted to bribing a prison officer” and will continue to pursue his claims against the company and committee.
At least eight people, including a serving police officer, have been arrested as part of the Metropolitan Police’s probe into journalists bribing police. Nixson wasn’t one of them.
Nixson, who was fired in July, knew bribing the guard was wrong because he told the reporter, Matthew Acton, to arrange the payment “very carefully,” since the company had a “forensic new accountant who doesn’t brook any funny business,” according to the filing.
Acton declined to comment when reached by phone.
“A common law offense of bribery may be committed where a public officer accepts a payment in return for passing non-public information to the payer,” if the person acted in breach of their duty or dishonestly, said David de Ferrars, a lawyer at Taylor Wessing LLP who isn’t involved in the case.
The U.K.’s Prison Service said in an e-mail that it is “urgently looking into whether this is new evidence or refers to an officer who was dismissed from the service for inappropriate contact with the press” at one of its prisons.
Daisy Dunlop, a spokeswoman for the New York-based company’s News International unit, and Paul Durman, a spokesman for the committee, both declined to comment.
Nixson also received an e-mail from another News of the World employee about phone hacking and “blagging,” or lying to get personal information for a story, and didn’t “raise an objection,” News Corp. said in the filing.
“I’ll get [REDACTED] to do his thing on [REDACTED]’s phone,” the unnamed employee said in the November 2005 e-mail to Nixson. The name of the employee and the proposed victim, a celebrity executive producer, were removed at the request of the Metropolitan Police, News Corp. said in the filing.
News International is facing about 70 lawsuits filed by victims of phone hacking, as well as separate police probes of phone hacking, computer hacking and bribery. Prime Minister David Cameron also called for judge-led inquiry into the ethics of U.K. newspapers, which was triggered by the scandal.
The bribery probe, known as Operation Elveden, is focusing on corrupt payments to police. A police spokesperson declined to comment on the payment to the prison guard.
The bribe was made to get information on Ian Huntley, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2003 after being found guilty of murdering two 10-year-old girls attending the primary school where he worked in Cambridgeshire the previous year. In 2005, a court ruled he must spend at least 40 years in prison.
In the years after Huntley was jailed, the News of the World and other U.K. tabloids ran stories about his prison life, saying he was given preferential treatment. A story by Acton in March 2009 said fellow inmates had been banned from swearing at Huntley to avoid hurting his feelings after three failed suicide attempts. Huntley survived being slashed in the throat by another inmate in 2010.
Nixson sued the committee for recommending in July that the company fire him from the Sun, where he’d worked since 2010. He is seeking his 105,000-pound annual salary plus damages, claiming he will have difficulty finding work after being tainted by the News of the World’s phone-hacking scandal.
The committee is overseen by commercial lawyer Anthony Grabiner, a member of the U.K. Parliament’s House of Lords, and includes Simon Greenberg, Will Lewis and Jeffrey Palker.
The defense papers were filed by the committee members and not by News International, which was also sued.
Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News, competes with News Corp. units in providing financial news and information.
The case is Nixson v. News Group Newspapers, High Court of Justice Queen’s Bench Division, Case No. HQ11X03843