Murdoch Wedding Singer Now His Phone-Hacking Trial Nemesis

Charlotte Church, the Welsh pop star who sang at News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch’s wedding in 1999 when she was 13 years old, is now his nemesis in the first civil trial over the company’s U.K. phone-hacking scandal.

After dozens of lawmakers, athletes and other celebrities settled lawsuits, the 25-year-old Church and her parents are the only remaining victims of the now-defunct News of the World tabloid whose case is ready for a Feb. 27 trial in London.

News Corp. “wants to avoid the trial at all costs -- they don’t want anything coming out in open court that could cause more damage to their reputation,” said Niri Shan, who leads the media practice at Taylor Wessing LLP in London and isn’t involved in the case. They will push Church to settle, he said.

Murdoch’s New York-based company, which shuttered the News of the World in July in an attempt to contain public anger, still faces possible claims by more than 800 likely victims identified by police. The scandal has spread to its Sun tabloid, Britain’s best-selling daily paper, where nine journalists have been arrested since Jan. 29 in a parallel probe of bribery of public officials.

Church and her parents, James and Maria, sued in December after the Metropolitan Police showed them evidence the News of the World’s ex-private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, who was jailed for phone hacking, had intercepted their phone messages in 2003, 2005 and 2006 to write stories about them.

The singer, whose 2005 song “Crazy Chick” reached no. 2 on the U.K. pop charts, told a separate judge-led inquiry into press ethics in November that the evidence includes “many pages of names, numbers, notes, addresses, pin numbers and the fact that my mother and I were each a ‘project.’”

Affair, Cocaine

The News of the World in 2005 reported Church’s father was having an affair and used cocaine, and that her mother tried to kill herself as a result. The paper probably wrote about her mother’s hospital treatment using “illicitly obtained private details,” Church told the inquiry.

Daisy Dunlop, a spokeswoman for News Corp.’s News International unit in the U.K., declined to comment on the trial. The company has admitted liability and tried to resolve the cases out of court, offering victims an online process to begin settlement talks overseen by a former judge.

Church’s lawyer, Mike Brookes at Lee & Thompson in London, declined to comment on the trial or settlement talks.

Evidence that could be made public for the first time in a trial includes Mulcaire’s notes about Church and any News International e-mails that relate to her. Judge Geoffrey Vos previously ordered the publisher to search millions of internal messages and other documents that had been deleted and reconstructed.

Grid of Victims

Vos created a grid of “test cases” last year for the phone-hacking trial, including six lead claims and dozens of backups to take their places if they settled. The grid had six categories of victims, including politicians and non-public people who were subjected to intense tabloid scrutiny.

For months, News International has pushed settlements with the lead victims and their backups, chipping away at the grid and delaying the trial twice. News Corp. has agreed to pay out $15.6 million to phone-hacking victims, settling at least 54 lawsuits out of 60 that were filed by October.

Law, Coogan

Actor Jude Law, once the most vocal victim seeking a final ruling on damages, instead took 130,000 pounds ($206,000) to drop his claim last month. Sports agent Sky Andrew, one of the first to sue, agreed earlier this month to settle for 75,000 pounds, while actor Steve Coogan took 40,000 pounds.

Church’s claim, one of the last filed, is the only test case remaining.

The main reason victims are settling -- even those who insisted they would go to trial -- is a U.K. law that forces victims to pay a portion of the other side’s legal costs if they reject a settlement offer and then win less than that amount at a trial, Shan said. Victims who win large awards can end up paying even more money to the losing side, he said.

Vos has repeatedly said the trial will benefit everyone by giving guidance for damages and resolving common disputes. At a Feb. 8 hearing, he ruled the trial should go ahead with Church alone and denied News Corp.’s request to delay it indefinitely.

Physical, Mental Examinations

If Church doesn’t settle, she’ll have to meet evidentiary requests made by News Corp. at the hearing. Her mother must undergo physical and mental examinations by a doctor chosen by the company and Church will have to turn over past regulatory complaints against other tabloids and personal e-mails sent to friends and family describing her reaction to stories.

News International will make the trial as difficult as possible for the Church family to discourage future claimants from going to court, said Duncan Lamont, a lawyer at Charles Russell LLP, who isn’t involved in the case.

“The News of the World remains a very tough litigator” that doesn’t want to be seen as a “pushover,” Lamont said in a phone interview. “They’ve got a crack team and they’re not being nice. They’re only going to pay what they have to.”

At trial another Church lawyer, David Sherborne, will seek to maximize damages by showing more than 30 articles based on intercepted phone messages caused her mother prolonged mental distress. The negative coverage of Church’s parents forced them to sell a pub in Wales, Sherborne said at the Feb. 8 hearing.

The public may see the trial as unnecessary since the wave of civil cases already succeeded in bringing once-buried police evidence to light and triggered three new police investigations and a judge-led inquiry, Lamont said. News Corp. will want to portray Church as “greedy” and seek to punish her, he said.

100,000-Pound Fee

Church waived her 100,000-pound fee for singing at Murdoch’s wedding to wife Wendi Deng in New York more than a decade ago, because she was told she would be looked upon favorably by his papers, she told the inquiry.

“This strategy failed,” Church said in her statement to the inquiry. “In fact, Mr. Murdoch’s newspapers have since been some of the worst offenders, so much so that I have sometimes felt that there has actually been a deliberate agenda.”

About a year after the wedding, News Corp.’s Sunday Times newspaper published what she called one of the most damaging article of her career after interviewing her about her time in New York during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she told the inquiry. The story “distorted” her comments to suggest she was being critical of the celebrity of New York’s firefighters, resulting in her needing extra security in the U.S., she said.

Church, a mother of two, also claims Murdoch’s Sun tabloid may have hacked into a voice mail from her doctor to report her pregnancy in 2007, before she’d told her friends and family. That claim isn’t part of her lawsuit.

Murdoch is going to London this week in response to the latest arrests at the Sun and is scheduled to discuss the situation with the paper’s staff. Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News, competes with News Corp. units in providing financial news and information.

The case is Church v. News Group Newspapers, High Court of Justice Chancery Division, No. HC11C03393.

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