A high court judge said yesterday he would consider whether the most senior executives at Rupert Murdoch's News International knew of the phone hacking scandal, when he decides the level of damages due to victims of voicemail eavesdropping by the News of the World.
Mr Justice Geoffrey Vos told a pre-trial hearing for 26 civil claims being brought against the NOTW that he would have to test the allegation that "editors and executives" at the company knew about the phone hacking against the newspaper's insistence that the illegal activity never went above the level of individual journalists or, at worst, groups of reporters.
The suggestion that awareness of the hacking into voice messages might have reached the highest levels of News International came as it was alleged that a "very senior executive" at the NOTW had been implicated in the damages claim being brought by the actor Jude Law.
It also emerged that Scotland Yard now believes that the number of likely victims of the private detective Glenn Mulcaire, who was commissioned by the NOTW to eavesdrop on messages, has now reached at least 400. Hugh Tomlinson QC, for Mr Law, said: "If it was established that the very senior NOTW executive was indeed involved that may be an important or decisive factor [in deciding the level of damages]." Last night News International strongly disputed that the executive was linked to the claims.
Mr Law, whose former fiancée Sienna Miller last week won a £100,000 settlement from the NOTW for phone hacking, was named by Mr Justice Vos as one of five test cases to be heard early next year to help decide the level of damages due to the burgeoning number of public figures lining up to sue the Sunday paper and Mr Mulcaire for allegedly eavesdropping on their voicemails.
The Labour MP Chris Bryant, the interior designer Kelly Hoppen, the football commentator Andy Gray and the sports agent Sky Andrew will form the rest of the lead cases, which the court heard would seek to establish "what was agreed to be done, by whom, for what purpose, over what period and who was involved". The hearings will also make it possible for other claims to be decided without the need for a full trial.
Mr Justice Vos said part of the proceedings would require him to decide on a claim by lawyers for phone hacking victims that the agreement between Mr Mulcaire, who was jailed in 2007, and the NOTW to eavesdrop voicemails went as far as "the board of directors" and "the highest level" of News International. The judge said: "It is one thing for a journalist to say I am desperate to get a story and another for a chief executive to say I want to get greater profits by obtaining stories by using illegal means." Senior executives at News International, including the former NOTW editor and Downing Street media chief Andy Coulson, have denied any knowledge of the phone hacking activities of its staff members.
Michael Silverleaf QC, for the NOTW, said: "Yes, individual journalists, or maybe groups of journalists, were involved, but there was no managerial involvement."
Outlining the newspaper's defence that its reporters were not reliant on voicemail interception to obtain their stories, the lawyer continued: "It cannot simply be assumed that information was sought by phone hacking. My understanding is that good old-fashioned journalism was responsible for the vast bulk of the stories complained about."
News International has set up a multi-million pound compensation fund to settle the growing number of claims.
Lawyers for the Metropolitan Police revealed that its criminal investigation, Operation Weeting, had confirmed that Mr Mulcaire had recorded about 400 unique voicemail numbers, which allow a person to dial directly into someone's phone messages, and 149 voicemail PIN codes. The figures significantly increase the potential pool of claimants against the NOTW because until now it was known only that Mr Mulcaire had obtained 91 PIN codes.
The Test Cases
Lawyers for the actor said the alleged hacking of his phone, carried out in 2005 to 2006, represented the "highest end" of voicemail interception. Mr Justice Vos said the NOTW had published 16 articles allegedly arising from hacking, and noted disputed claims that a "very senior executive" at the paper was implicated.
The NOTW has admitted that the football commentator was the subject of one article about his personal life which arose from eavesdropped voicemails. The nature of his claim will help decide damages at the middle of the hacking scale.
The celebrity interior designer and step-mother to actress Sienna Miller was the subject of 11 articles allegedly based on eavesdropped messages. She is the only claimant who alleges that her voicemails were targeted beyond the 2005-2006 period at the centre of the scandal.
The Labour MP is the only claimant from a political background to be included in the test cases. Notes written by Glenn Mulcaire contained the phone numbers of friends and family members which Mr Bryant states could only have been obtained by phone hacking.
The sports agent, who represents Ms Hoppen's former boyfriend Sol Campbell, was one of eight victims named at the trial in 2007 of Mr Mulcaire. Although no articles based on phone hacking appeared about him, it is claimed he was targeted for stories about his clients.
Inquiry Chief met Coulson
Andy Hayman, the Scotland Yard detective who headed the original inquiry into phone hacking, had dinner with the editor of the News of the World at a critical moment in his investigation into the newspaper, the Metropolitan Police disclosed yesterday.
Mr Hayman and Scotland Yard's head of public affairs, Dick Fedorcio, dined with the NOTW's editor, Andy Coulson, and his deputy, Neil Wallis, at Soho House private members club in central London on 25 April 2006.
It was known Mr Hayman had met a member of staff at the paper, but not that he was as senior as Mr Coulson.
Mr Hayman told The Independent last month he could not recall who he had dined with at the NOTW in April 2006.
The Met said it "understood" the restaurant bill had been paid by the tabloid's owner, News International.