Brian Cathcart: Memories of hacking will be jogged in court
Media Studies: Police say there are 3,870 names in Muclaire's records and only a small fraction have so far been informed
Monday 03 October 2011
After the firestorm that followed the Milly Dowler revelations in the summer, Rupert Murdoch's News International must have hoped life might return to something like normal, or at least that there would be sufficient calm to allow some gentle rebuilding. That has not happened.
Instead a new hacking story tumbles out every few days, be it news that one of Jamie Bulger's killers is now thought to have been hacked at a time when he supposedly had a secret new identity, or the discovery that former News of the World journalist Neil Wallis worked for both the Metropolitan Police and the paper at the same time.
These revelations prompt public anger and keep the company on the defensive, but they also stack up the legal pressures, fuelling the police investigation and the civil proceedings for damages. We don't know much about the progress of the police, but those civil cases, brought by people who believe they were victims of hacking, vividly display the company's confusion.
Back in January, News International tried to shut down the litigation problem by boldly declaring it would settle all claims against it brought by victims who had decent evidence they had been hacked. A few people took the money because legally they had no choice – but only a few. Meanwhile more came on the scene, and there are now nearly twice as many cases before the courts (around 50) as there were in January.
Back then, the company also offered a cheap, behind-closed-doors mediation process overseen by a former senior judge. Legal sources say that nobody at all has used this service. Far from disappearing, the litigants are heading for a test trial in January, which will hear the claims of six of them: Paul Gascoigne; Jude Law; Chris Bryant MP; Sky Andrew (a football agent); Kelly Hoppen (a designer) and Sheila Henry, mother of a man killed in the 7/7 explosions in 2005.
Just imagine. Drama is certain, but also unprecedented courtroom scrutiny of the company, with assorted witnesses testifying under oath and being cross-examined by top barristers. We had just a hint of what could happen last week when Neville Thurlbeck, one of the former News of the World people arrested in the police hacking investigation, announced: "There is much I could have said publicly to the detriment of News International but, so far, have chosen not to do so." Might he choose to say those things in court? Would he be given a choice?
Evidence in the preliminary hearings suggests that the central figure in the whole affair, convicted hacker Glenn Mulcaire, has problems remembering. To at least one series of written questions, on behalf of hacking victim Simon Hughes MP, he repeatedly answered that he had "no independent recollection" of the facts. His forgetfulness would be tested to the limit in court.
News International has suffered extraordinary damage even before any of this has come to trial. How will it withstand all the additional pressures?
Then again, what choice does it have? Police say there are 3,870 names in Muclaire's records and only a small fraction have so far been informed. Writing a blank cheque now, valid for all future claimants, might be a big financial risk.
Little wonder, then, that the court hearings point to a company internally tangled by its own investigations, struggling to keep up with demands for disclosure, reeling before the continuing revelations and, above all, unable to formulate coherent policies.
Why we need to talk about Kelvin
It is probably a mug's game trying to understand the workings of Kelvin MacKenzie's brain, yet he seemed to ask for it last week when he described in The Spectator his reaction to the discovery that he too was a victim of hacking. The years, he wrote, had made him thick-skinned, and yet his defences crumbled. "Oddly I felt quite threatened by this invasion and understood more clearly why celebrities ... felt they had been violated."
This is the same Kelvin MacKenzie who gleefully told this newspaper last November, on the subject of hacking: "I would have loved every second of it. I would have been sitting there listening to the voicemails, reading the texts and literally rolling up, killing myself laughing..." Could it be that the secret to his success as a tabloid editor was a lack of empathy? Is he one of those unfortunate people who are only capable of recognising suffering when they experience it personally? That would explain a good deal.
The real truth about Rio Ferdinand
The Sunday Mirror is thrilled with its court privacy victory over "love cheat" Rio Ferdinand last week. The tide has finally turned, the paper announced, in the decade-long attempt by the courts to hide the wrongdoings of the rich and famous. Read the judgement itself at www.bailli.org, and the picture looks different. Far from being a change of direction, this was a normal modern privacy verdict, perfectly consistent with almost all those that have gone before it in recent years. The paper won because, in this instance, it had a case.
Ferdinand lost partly because as England captain he was judged to be a "role model" – a favourite tabloid justification for privacy intrusion. Reaching his conclusion, Mr Justice Nicol even drew attention to a 2003 judgement suggesting that this category of role model might be so wide as to include all Premiership footballers.
If that is "judge-made privacy law", maybe papers will soon be asking for more of it, not less.
Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University London. Stephen Glover is away
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