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Sky News looks at the High Court’s findings after a judge ruled phone hacking by the Mirror Group newspapers was carried out from 1996 to 2011, and was “widespread and habitual” from 1998.

Sunday 17 December 2023 17:17, UK

A judge has ruled that phone hacking and unlawful information gathering took place at Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN) from the mid-1990s until 2011.

Evidence of both illegal techniques were found in Prince Harry’s case, as well as Coronation Street star Michael Le Vell’s.

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Le Vell’s former co-star, Hollyoaks actress Nikki Sanderson, and Fiona Wightman, the ex-wife of comedian Paul Whitehouse, were also found to have valid cases – but they were dismissed because they were filed six years too late.

Here are some of the court’s key findings:

Unlawful information gathering and phone hacking at Mirror Group in general between 1991 and 2011

• There was “some” unlawful activity” at MGN in 1995
• But unlawful information gathering was “widespread” at all three papers – the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror, and Sunday People, from 1996 onwards
• Phone hacking started in 1996 and “became widespread and habitual” from 1998
• But nothing was proved on phone hacking at MGN between 1991 and 1994
• Between 2006 and 2011, unlawful information gathering and phone hacking continued
• Phone hacking “remained an important tool for the kind of journalism being practised” by all three papers between 2006 and 2011
• This included when the Leveson Inquiry into press intrusion was ongoing
• Phone hacking was “still extensive” between 2006 and 2011 but done “in a more controlled way… and not as habitually” as before August 2006
• Unlawful information gathering involving private investigators reduced between 2006 and 2011 compared to before, but was still done throughout that period
• The ruling reminded that the court decided in 2015 that hacking was “extensive and habitual” between 1999-2006.

Did the MGN board and legal team know about unlawful activities?

• The only MGN directors who knew about phone hacking before the end of 2011 were Paul Vickers, then group legal director, and Sly Bailey, chief executive officer
• The Mirror Group board “as a whole was not told” because the editors of all three papers “did not report what they knew or suspected” to it
• The company’s in-house lawyers knew about phone hacking and extensive unlawful information gathering so they could “legal” articles
• This included Marcus Partington, who was deputy group legal director from 2007 and then group legal director from 2014
• Cases settled by David and Victoria Beckham and Rio Ferdinand on information obtained unlawfully for articles about them were also deemed to be evidence that lawyers and executives knew in this trial.

Sly Bailey in 2012

Prince Harry’s case

• Fifteen out of 33 articles the Duke of Sussex complained about were the product of hacking of his or his associates’ phones and unlawful information gathering
• Prince Harry’s phone “was only hacked to a modest extent” from the end of 2003 to April 2009
• Eighteen articles he complained about “did not stand up to careful analysis”
• A “number” of invoices for private investigators provide evidence of unlawful activity in relation to the Duke of Sussex
• Damages of £140,600 were awarded – not just for unlawful activity but for the “particular hurt and sense of outrage the duke feels” because two directors “knew about the illegal activity and could have put a stop to it”, and instead they “turned a blind eye to what was going on and positively concealed it”
• However, MGN “only played a small part in everything the Duke suffered” in relation to press intrusion and unlawful activity

• Prince Harry’s voicemails were intercepted from late-2003, but not on a regular basis, rather in a “more targeted and controlled way”
• His associates began to have their phones hacked in 2002 until the end of the period in 2011
• Prince Harry’s phone was targeted “on occasions when there was an important storyline MGN was chasing, such as the ups and downs of his relationship with Chelsy Davy”
• “Less care was taken with Ms Davy’s phone” and those of her friends and family
• Ms Davy was “subjected to unlawful information gathering and voicemail interception regularly, as a means of obtaining information about their relationship and the duke’s life”;
• This was the same for Prince Harry’s other girlfriends and his close friends, “in particular Guy Pelly, Natalie Pinkham and Tiggy Legge-Bourke, who were regularly targeted with a view to obtaining information about him”.

Michael Le Vell (Turner)

• Voicemail interception and unlawful information gathering was used to a “limited extent” in Michael Le Vell’s case
• This was because “his personal life was not considered to be of great interest to Mirror Group readers”, in contrast with his Coronation Street co-star Sanderson
• But this changed in 2011 when he was arrested, charged and subsequently acquitted of child sex offences
• Therefore, four of the 27 articles he complained about were obtained through illegal means
• Coronation Street stars, including Mr Le Vell and Ms Sanderson, “undoubtedly” had their phones hacked between 2000 and 2006
• One of Mr Le Vell’s proven claims of voicemail interception was because he left messages for co-stars whose phones were hacked
• Unlawful information gathering was used to “track him down to Cheshire pubs”, “hear messages he left for others, and possibly messages left for him”
• ​​​​​​The “misery he understandably suffered” in 2011 over his trial was “exacerbated” by unlawful information gathering directed at him
• He was therefore awarded £31,650 in damages.

Michael Le Vell (Turner)

Nikki Sanderson and Fiona Wightman’s cases dismissed

• As Sanderson brought her case on 7 December 2020, it was dismissed as out of time because the limitation period ended on 7 December 2014
• Similarly, Wightman brought her case on 30 July 2021, so her case has been out of time since 30 July 2015;
• Regardless, nine out of 37 of the articles Sanderson complained about had evidence of unlawful activity;
• Sanderson “appears to have been hacked routinely” between November 2004 and January 2005;
• She became “less of an interest to MGN when she left Coronation Street in 2005”, except over things like “career developments” or “relationship breakdowns”
• The judge deemed that she “made much more” of the impact of articles and the techniques used for them “in retrospect and for the benefit of the court”, often not having been aware of them at the time
• But there was “probably more hacking” between 2004 and 2005 than outlined in the case, but much of that “would have been targeted at her co-stars”
• One of Wightman’s articles and 15 of the private investigator invoices she complained about also met the threshold for unlawful activity
• Seven invoices prove unlawful information gathering directed at her and eight others towards her and her ex-husband together
• If it wasn’t for the time restrictions, Ms Wightman would be entitled to damages.

Omid Scobie

• The Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s unofficial biographer was a student journalist with the Daily Mirror’s showbiz team and the Sunday People during some of this period
• He said he was “given a list of mobile phone numbers and a detailed verbal description of how to listen to voicemails… as if it were a standard newsgathering technique”
• Scobie claimed that once Piers Morgan asked about a story on Kylie Minogue and James Gooding, which was later published on 11 May 2022 with the byline James Scott
• He said Morgan was told the team was confident about the veracity of the article because it was done through phone hacking;
• There is an invoice dated 7 May 2002 for Scott for “extensive enquiries carried out on your behalf”, which appears to corroborate that account
• Minogue and Gooding’s phone numbers were also in Mr Scott’s palm pilot device
• The judge ruled Scobie a “reliable witness” and said he accepts what he said about Morgan’s involvement in the Minogue/Gooding story.

Omid Scobie. Pic:ITV/Shutterstock

Read more:
What were the articles at centre of Prince Harry hacking trial?
Duke wins round one of tabloid battle but he’s far from finished – analysis
Piers Morgan launches rant against Prince Harry

Piers Morgan

• Morgan was the editor of the Daily Mirror from 1994 until he was sacked in 2004;
• Prince Harry’s legal team “tried to establish a close connection” between Morgan and Sir Victor Blank, chairman of Trinity Mirror PLC from 1999 until May 2006, and Sly Bailey, chief executive officer, who the judge found both knew about unlawful information gathering
• But the judge found “little evidence” of a close relationship save from “occasional lunches”, a “formal reporting line” between Morgan and Bailey and two appearances Mr Morgan at board meetings in 2002 “to address strategic issues”

• During one of these lunches, Mirror Group political editor David Seymour was told by a City journalist colleague that Morgan “taunted the CEO of BT plc” who was also there that his customers would have to “change their PIN from factory settings”, because journalists often intercepted voicemails by taking advantage of people leaving their PIN as 0000 or 1234
• Seymour told the judge that Morgan was an “extremely boastful person” who would have “really enjoyed saying to the chief executive of BT: aren’t we clever”
• Mr Justice Fancourt said Seymour was a “man of intelligence and integrity” and he “accepts his evidence without hesitation”


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