Cast your mind back to the Guardian’s phone hacking scoop on 8 July 2009. It marked Part II of the British phone hacking saga and re-opened an enormous can of worms in Wapping (Part I, as readers of Inforrm will be aware, had seen private investigator Glenn Mulcaire and journalist Clive Goodman jailed for illegally intercepting voicemail messages).
The Guardian’s special correspondent Nick Davies had been laying the clues several months before July 2009, however. In April that year he told the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport select committee that the Press Complaints Commission had not properly investigated the Clive Goodman affair:
“There are newspapers publishing stories all over Fleet Street; there is a whole lot of hacking going on, hacking into mobile phones. They [PCC] conducted an inquiry which was set up in such a way that it could not possibly disclose the truth about that illegal activity.”
While there have been dramatic developments in the phone hacking story in the 21 months since the Guardian opened Part II, the truth is yet to be found – let alone reconciliation attempted. The chairman of the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport select committee, John Whittingdale MP, told Davies in April 2009: “We did do an investigation both into Motorman and into Goodman so I do not want to revisit old ground too much“. His position is rather different now. On Wednesday he told BBC Radio 4′s Media Show there should be “some kind of commission or inquiry” and strongly criticised the PCC and police investigations.
At 10.30am today lawyers for 17 claimants will attend a case management conference in Court 57 at the High Court. But as Professor Roy Greenslade has argued in the London Evening Standard, News International has attempted to thwart the actions with offer of cash settlements: “In effect,” says Greenslade, “they believe this whole sordid business can be sorted out behind closed doors because they have decided to throw money at claimants who make out a decent case”.
Greenslade speculates about NI’s legal strategy and suggests that claimants will be unwise to reject cash offers in light of Part 36 regime of the Civil Procedure Rules. In his simplified explanation he outlines:
“It [Part 36] says that if an offer is made by a defendant in advance of a trial, then – should the trial go ahead and the claimant be awarded a sum less than the pre-trial offer – the claimant could end up paying an enormous amount in costs. It would not be far-fetched to say this could reach £500,000.”
Furthermore, if money is the claimant’s motivation rather than truth they might be tempted by NI’s offer, which is likely to be a significantly larger amount than would be awarded by a judge after trial. Greenslade believes the fund of £20 million will cover future actions too:
“It is more than enough to deal with the problem. Even if the numbers of people making claims were to triple from the nine the company has provisionally agreed to compensate, the fund is more than adequate”.
(Although it should be noted that lawyer Charlotte Harris, representing a number of the claimants, has recently suggested as many as 7,000 victims.)
The significance of Greenslade’s argument is this: if claimants are persuaded to settle claims pre-court, phone hacking evidence will never be aired in court. Civil actions may not expose the truth, especially if a confidentiality clause is part of that final settlement.
What of the police then? Yesterday, former NOTW assistant editor James Weatherup was arrested. Ian Edmondson, the paper’s former assistant editor (news), was dismissed in January and arrested last week. Neville Thurlbeck, the News of the World’s chief reporter, was also arrested. The Guardian reports that the two men voluntarily presented themselves at police stations in London before they were released on bail to return in September 2011.
A vigorous police investigation should lead to the truth, but we must remember what happened with Mulcaire and Goodman. Once guilt had been admitted, the investigation into the wider practice of phone hacking at News International ceased. And then there’s the question of the police’s own conduct in the original Part I investigation. John Whittingdale told the BBC’s Steve Hewlett:
“…What I find actually more worrying was the apparent unwillingness of the police, [who] had almost all of this evidence – all the information which has subsequently been revealed through court actions actually came from the material seized from Glenn Mulcaire by the police – and so the police had it and then chose to do nothing with it. Certainly, I do think that is something that needs to be looked into, as to why the evidence which now has led to arrests, to a large number of officers being deployed on [the] investigation, [why] at the time it was originally seized was deemed to be completely irrelevant and not to be worthy of further investigation.“
The Press Complaints Commission has not proved itself capable of conducting such an inquiry, as its inadequate report in 2009 demonstrated. John Whittingdale told the Media Show that the PCC had not “covered themselves in glory over that”. He said a phone hacking inquiry, not necessarily set up the government, should be led by “someone who would be seen to be independent, expert and powerful,” such as a retired High Court judge, cabinet minister or civil servant who is “quite clearly not in thrall to the press”.
Tom Watson MP, who sat on the DCMS select committee during its phone hacking inquiry, believes that the phone hacking victims want facts not money:
“Those hacking victims in the courts? Most of them are millionaires. Do you think it’s about the money to them? They want justice. They want the facts. They want to force Rupert Murdoch to see what’s been done in his name. They want him to say sorry, and mean it. They want him to put the matter right – for the victims who haven’t the financial clout, nor current knowledge, to stand up for themselves in the courts.”
I suspect it is likely that many claimants would prefer truth and reconciliation than money, but how to find it? Privacy claims and police investigations will not reveal the whole phone hacking picture. As Greenslade said:
“[Police] inquiries will not, however, deal with the ethical transgressions within the News of the World. That should be the remit of a judicial inquiry held in public in order to probe into the cover-up that led News Int [sic] to mislead parliament.“
A public and independent commission is required following the police and civil investigations. How it should be structured and shaped in order to achieve truth and reconciliation should be the media and legal industry’s next big question.