Until Prince Harry hit the headlines with his cases against News Group, Mirror Group and Associated Newspapers, phone hacking felt like ancient history.
Back in 2011 it was big news, once the Guardian revealed the News of the World had intercepted the voicemails of murdered schoolgirl Millie Dowler. Rupert Murdoch shut down the 168-year-old paper.
In 2012, the Leveson Inquiry looked into the culture, practices and ethics of the press and published its recommendations.
But that was more than a decade ago. Done and dusted, you might have imagined.
Prince Harry has dragged the issue back into the spotlight. Perhaps only he has the celebrity, the drive – and the funds – to take on the tabloids.
A new BBC documentary, Scandalous: Phone Hacking on Trial, offers up some context to his quest. And it suggests there are still some uncomfortable – and unanswered – questions for the British media.
Sienna Miller speaks out
Actress Sienna Miller has spoken for the first time in depth and on camera about her experiences as part of the documentary.
She settled a case with the Sun over phone hacking in 2021. News Group paid her a significant sum of money but made no admission of liability regarding what she alleged took place at the newspaper.
At the time, she stood outside the Rolls Building of the High Court – the same court in which Prince Harry has been pursuing his case against Mirror Group in recent weeks – and said she had wanted to go to trial but didn’t have “countless millions”.
People old enough to remember the early 2000s may have a hazy memory of the reports in question – an up-and-coming actress who was endlessly in the papers. Perhaps the least charitable will have viewed her as a wannabe who used a romantic relationship with a famous star to court fame.
Her descriptions force us to question those assumptions.
In a powerful and emotional interview, Miller tells the BBC: “It was completely crazy, the number of stories that were coming out. And the number of accurate stories that were appearing in the press was baffling.”
Catapulted on to the front pages by a relationship with actor Jude Law, when he cheated on her with his children’s nanny – who sold her story – it was all over the papers. Miller then discovered she was pregnant. That too was reported in the UK, having appeared first in a US publication. It made her decision whether or not to terminate the pregnancy horrendously public.
“I remember one photographer saying, ‘Have you had your tits done to keep him?’ And obviously I was pregnant… it was just awful,” she said.
“I felt somebody must be selling stories. And I sat down the five people in our lives who knew and interrogated them violently. I was under such intense pressure.
“I remember my doctor’s office phoning me and saying, ‘We’ve sent the records that you’d asked for’. And me saying, ‘I didn’t ask for any records’.”
Miller’s court case brought to light payments by the Sun to private investigators, such as £250 on 21 July 2005 for “Sienna phone inquiries”. Or £950 on 3 August 2005 for “Sienn’s [sic] Miller pregnant research”.
Dan Waddell, a paralegal involved in pursuing cases against News Group, tells the BBC he believes these are indicative of phone hacking and other unlawful information gathering, including blagging private information to discover her pregnancy.
News Group also told the BBC it does not accept Miller’s version of events, which it says is not borne out by evidence. It says it is limited in the response it can give while litigation is ongoing.
The private investigator that allegedly accessed Miller’s medical records denies “blagging” the doctor’s office.
What happened at the Sun?
News Group Newspapers, which owned the News of the World, has reportedly paid out hundreds of millions of pounds in costs and damages to settle phone hacking cases in recent years.
The vast majority relate to the News of the World. News Group has never admitted that phone hacking ever took place at its daily tabloid, the Sun. But can we be sure it didn’t?
It has settled Sun-only claims – without admissions of liability – with Miller and at least five others. Former Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes and former footballer Paul Gascoigne were among the first.
Neil Wallis, who’s worked in senior editorial positions at the Sun and News of the World, as well as its rival the Sunday People, says claims for civil damages are “an industry”.
He tells the programme: “The main newspaper groups are caught between a rock and a hard place. If you spend £1m on fighting that case, if you can settle it for £100,000 I’m afraid it’s a no-brainer. It’s cheaper to settle than to fight for the truth.”
He calls it a “legal scandal”.
Within the last year, News Group has also reached Sun-only settlements, again without any admission of liability, with jockey Kieren Fallon and two people who aren’t celebrities: London 7/7 bombing survivor John Tulloch, and Patricia Bernal.
Bernal’s daughter Clare was shot dead in 2005 by a man with whom she had had a three-week relationship. Five years after the murder, the police told Bernal the News of the World had hacked her phone and Clare’s.
Bernal tells the programme: “It’s quite unbelievable that individuals could go to such lengths at a time when a family is so grief stricken.”
There’s also an interview with Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator who went to prison in 2007 for phone hacking at the News of the World.
Mulcaire tells the BBC that the interview has been a “long time coming”. Some will view the statements of a convicted hacker as tainted. For the first time on camera, Mulcaire admits he also hacked for the Sun.
He says: “I listened to Heather Mills’ voicemails for The Sun. I hacked not only the target, which in this case would be Heather Mills, but also friends and family and associates, so they could get access to material from voice messages left by Heather.”
News Group has told the BBC it denies it asked Mulcaire to hack for the Sun. It paid Mills a significant sum in 2019 to settle her claim ahead of a trial, admitting Mulcaire hacked for the News of the World.
It made no admissions over hacking for the Sun.
We learned from Prince Harry’s recent case against Mirror Group that it has paid out £100m in costs and damages to settle 600 claims of phone hacking since 2015.
That was after a judge in a previous civil case ruled that interception of voicemails was widespread at its papers for a decade.
MGN says: “Where historical wrongdoing has taken place, we have made admissions, take full responsibility and apologise unreservedly, but we will vigorously defend against allegations of wrongdoing where our journalists acted lawfully.
“MGN is now part of a very different company. We are committed to acting with integrity and our objective in this trial is to allow both the business and our journalists to move forward from events that took place many years ago.”
Actress Shobna Gulati, best known for Dinnerladies and Coronation Street, was one of those who sued MGN in 2015.
When you watch her interview for the new programme, you realise the impact of what happened to her – even now.
A single mum, she describes how she could “never figure out” how the paparazzi knew where she was going to be. It led to rows with boyfriends as her relationships “became fodder” and fears those closest to her were selling stories.
Gulati says she had hoped to find a partner and have some more children.
“That hasn’t happened because I’ve missed those years. I’ve missed those years because it was all very tumultuous, filled with paranoia and anxiety and mistrust, and you can’t form relationships like that.”
It took many months to persuade people whose phones had been hacked to take part in the programme. As Miller puts it: “The whole point of fighting these newspapers is because I was so keen to have my privacy. I feel a sense of duty to expose them as they have exposed us.”
Does it matter any more?
It was a dark chapter in media history. It was also a very different time – when the tabloids were all powerful, when the right to some privacy was an afterthought, when the prejudices expressed in many newspapers were commonplace.
One of the most shocking things to watch out for are the headlines used when Simon Hughes was outed as bisexual. “Limp Dem confesses.” “Another one bites the pillow.” Terms that would never be used these days.
Some argue that campaigners, many of them previously involved in Hacked Off, are using the legal system to have a go at the tabloids. They say there are conflicts of interest, not least that some stand to gain financially every time a case is successfully put through the courts. Other witnesses, they point out, are themselves convicted criminals.
Wallis spent four years on bail as part of Operation Weeting, the Metropolitan Police investigation into phone hacking, before the charges were dropped.
He says what’s happening is a “campaign against journalism”, which could force parts of the British media out of business.
“You have just about anybody who’s ever appeared in a tabloid newspaper saying, ‘Give me large wodges of cash please’.”
Others believe the final reckoning is still unfolding.
In an alternative reality, perhaps Prince Harry would have married Chelsy Davy years ago and got on with royal life.
Instead, he’s leading the charge to bring about reform of the press. And it looks like it may be just the beginning.
Scandalous: Phone Hacking on Trial is on BBC Two at 21:00 BST on Thursday 15 June.