Reporters at The Sun illegally accessed a Labour MP’s text messages from her stolen mobile phone at a time when the paper’s parent company, News International, was under criminal investigation for phone hacking, it was revealed in the High Court today.
Siobhain McDonagh, a former whip in Gordon Brown’s government, accepted “substantial damages” from the tabloid after it apologised for misusing her texts.
The data was on a handset stolen from the MP’s car, near her home in Colliers Wood, south-west London, in October 2010. Scotland Yard told her in June 2012 that her private messages had been illegally accessed by The Sun. At the time, police were investigating phone hacking at News International (NI), which insisted that it was co-operating fully with detectives.
Today’s apology from The Sun’s lawyers came during a special hearing related to the civil actions on phone hacking. Dinah Rose, QC, said that The Sun, edited by Dominic Mohan, engaged in a “serious misuse” of Ms McDonagh’s private information when it acquired the stolen phone.
The theft and downloading of data from the mobiles of newsworthy people is a developing strand in Scotland Yard’s ongoing criminal inquiries into Rupert Murdoch’s UK newspaper business.
Although the MP for Mitcham and Morden was not in court, she said later that she had felt terrible at the prospect of exposing those who texted her personal messages to potentially having their own phones hacked.
Yesterday’s hearing was scheduled to discuss the proposed June trial date of selected cases that would provide a framework for other civil claims for hacking damages.
Since the last hearing before Mr Justice Vos, six journalists who worked at The News of the World have been arrested in what Scotland Yard described as an “alleged further conspiracy” to intercept phone messages.
Hugh Tomlinson, QC, counsel for the victims, successfully argued that these arrests meant the June date was no longer feasible. The civil trial is now likely to take place once the main criminal hacking trial – which is due to start in September – is over.
Mr Tomlinson said “hundreds of victims” could be added to the list of those seeking damages from NI. The Independent learned last week that a new Metropolitan Police inquiry, Operation Pinetree, which is looking into the additional conspiracy to hack at the NOTW, has already found a potential 800 victims.
So far, Scotland Yard has concentrated on hacking carried out by journalists at the NOTW between 2002 and 2006. However, Mr Tomlinson said Operation Pinetree was looking at illegal activities at the now-defunct tabloid beyond this period.
The High Court also discussed the recent arrests of former Sunday Mirror journalists and said that an individual, who was not named, was a common link in both the second alleged conspiracy at the NOTW and the investigation into Mirror Group Newspapers.