Charlotte Harris: Nowhere to hide, says the lawyer on Murdoch's case

The Monday Interview: Charlotte Harris has spent four years pursuing hacking claims. She tells Martin Hickman why it's a cause worth fighting
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The Independent Online

One of Rupert Murdoch's nemeses is a 5ft 2in mother of two children who sits in The Independent's offices joking about how her children demand Nesquik while she is on the home phone conducting legal negotiations "with scary lawyers". Charlotte Harris, a partner at the London law firm Mishcon de Reya, has for the past three years been representing clients who believe their privacy was systematically invaded by Mr Murdoch's News of the World. She says the phone-hacking scandal raises profound questions about who is in charge of the country: newspapers, and in particular those owned by the world's most powerful media baron, or the police who should be curbing their excesses, and the public.

In a flurry of words, Ms Harris, 33, says: "This is about power and about thinking that you're above the law and about who we can trust, and fundamentally this is about whether we live in a democracy, or a Murdocracy dictatorship that I never voted for."

Mr Murdoch's UK newspaper group this month announced it wants to settle some of the 24 civil actions brought by individuals who claim their mobile phone messages were eavesdropped by the NOTW. Ms Harris, who represents the sports agent Sky Andrew, believes any hope News International has that its admission has locked down the scandal is mistaken. Aside from the ongoing police investigation Operation Weeting, which has made three arrests, some civil cases will go to trial later this year.

"The information will come out," she says. "We'll have witness statements, we'll have cross-examination, we will be examining them on the disclosure. When we get to the trial that is going to be the big showdown, that's when when we're going to find out what's happened. There will be no more hiding." She believes that Rebekah Brooks, News International's chief executive, and another ex-News of the World editor Andy Coulson may be called to give evidence.

Only two people have gone to jail for the NOTW's apparent industrial-scale eavesdropping – the former royal editor Clive Goodman and the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire who were convicted in 2007 of hacking into the phones of aides to Prince William.

While working in Manchester, Ms Harris helped to win payouts from News International for Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers Association, who knew juicy secrets about footballers, and the publicist Max Clifford, who knew juicy secrets about celebrities. She saw evidence that left her in no doubt that the newspaper group had a serious case to answer. "Very early on, I knew that the "one rogue reporter" defence that was being put forward relentlessly by News International simply was unsustainable. It gives you a very strong urge to keep going and also it means when you are advising clients you can have utter confidence. You can say: 'I know this sounds crazy but..."

"Everybody is very cross," she says of her clients, who range from politicians, to celebrities, to victims of crime. "There are very few people who think their phones have been hacked who come to me and say: 'I put myself in the public eye: what did I expect?' That is not the attitude. A real concern is that they don't know exactly what has been listened to.

"It's very big brothery: Somebody has been been listening to me... and this person who I don't know had my details and my kids' details, and my bank details and my passwords, and nobody will tell me what was going on and... the police won't help me."

When Ms Harris wrote to Scotland Yard asking whether the actress Leslie Ash and her husband Lee Chapman had been hacked, the police took three months to reply. When they did they said that although the couple's names were on Mr Mulcaire's paperwork that did not mean they had been hacked or were a target. The Met advised them to contact their phone company.

People have different views why the original police investigation, led by Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman in 2006 was so lacklustre: conspiracy, incompetence. Ms Harris wants a public inquiry, adding that the Met is conducting an internal inquiry into its first investigation – something the Met has denied to The Independent on three occasions.

She juggles her career with the needs of her children Annabel, four and Lily three, whom she had just moved down to London. "Sometimes I'm doing really hefty negotiations with some really scary lawyers and I'm trying to be brutal as I can and in the background I'm clearly being bullied by my children," she laughs, recounting the irony of her mouthing to her children to go to bed, only for them to insist that they continue watching Supernanny. She disagrees with the suggestion phone hacking is unimportant, involving publicity-hungry celebrities squealing. No, she says: people lost their jobs because their employers thought that they were snitching on them, victims of crime had their private thoughts eavesdropped, reporters may have listened in to politicians who knew state secrets: "We are living in this crazy world where the Murdoch newspapers have got such enormous power and influence we can't just be accepting of criminality or covering that up."

A life in brief

* Age 33

* Education The Mount School, Mill Hill, north London
University of East Anglia, BA in English and drama (she refused to act, instead writing plays)
College of Law, London, law conversion course

* Career Called to the Bar in 2000. Worked as a media specialist at law firms George Davies and MPW

* Current role Partner, Mishcon de Reya, London. Clients include Leslie Ash, Sky Andrew, Lembit Opik, Peter Kilfoyle

* Specialisms Media law; privacy and defamation