The Body arms herself for PR fightback

Macpherson appoints agency to defend her against claims of a deal with Murdoch over hacking

The Australian model Elle Macpherson has engaged the services of a top PR firm in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal. She is seeking to minimise unfavourable press criticism, notably in Australia, over her dealings with Rupert Murdoch.

In 2006 a court found that her phone had been hacked by the News of the World, but unlike the four other proven victims, excluding the royal princes (Max Clifford, Sky Andrew, Gordon Taylor and Simon Hughes), she has taken no legal action.

Critics have long suspected that she came to an out-of-court settlement with the paper and point out that in five years since the scandal, there were around 30 mentions of Macpherson (dubbed The Body) within it, of which all were either neutral or favourable. But her lawyer, Alex-ander Carter-Silk, has always claimed she neither sought nor was offered any sort of compensation.

It is a denial endorsed by the PR company, Project Associates, whose spokesman told The Independent on Sunday yesterday: "It is categorically untrue that she or anyone associated with her did any sort of deal with News International."

Another indirect victim of the phone hacking episode was Mary-Ellen Field, the model's former branding adviser, who Macpherson sacked, suspecting her of leaking stories to the press. Ms Field always denied this, and says she assumed when evidence of the hacking of Macpherson's phone emerged that Macpherson would exonerate her. Yet Macpherson has always refused to do so, and will not answer questions on the matter.

The result has been a storm of unfavourable publicity in much of the non-Murdoch-owned media in Australia. Macpherson's unwillingness to answer questions about phone hacking and the sacking of Ms Field have been laughingly contrasted with her insistence on talking about her favourite beauty products and "the lessons she's learned from suncare".

"Far more entertaining," wrote one journalist of one of her recent appearances endorsing a brand of sunscreen, "was listening to the photographers bitching about The Body yesterday, referring to the job as 'A Nightmare on Elle Street'."

Project Associates, which specialises in reputation "protection, management and enhancement", has strong links with the Murdoch organisation: the former Sun editor Stuart Higgins is a non-executive director.

The model also remains on good terms with Murdoch's companies. She hosts Britain and Ireland's Next Top Model on the part-Murdoch-owned network BSkyB, and her new US show Fashion Star is the creation of producer Ben Silverman, a close associate of the Murdochs whose company has a deal with the Murdoch empire to distribute his programmes.

Ms Field, whose case will be explored by the Leveson phone-hacking inquiry, insists she bears no ill will to Macpherson. "If she rang me up tomorrow I'd be pleased to talk to her," she said. "I just want to know what happened. What is undeniable in this is that she is a victim as well as me."

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