Sunday Mirror’s PalmPilots ‘were instruments of unlawful information gathering,’ Court Told
Full disclosure: The court case reported below has heard references to witness statements given by Graham Johnson and Dan Evans, in support of the claimants, who are suing the Mirror Group (now Reach PLC) for phone hacking and unlawful information gathering. Mr. Johnson is the former Investigations Editor at the Sunday Mirror. Mr. Johnson is now the Head of Investigations at byline.com and bylineinvestigates.com. Mr. Evans has also written for Byline Investigates.
By Byline Investigates
Sunday Mirror news boss Nick Buckley was allegedly involved in the hacking or illegal blagging of former footballers Paul Merson, Titus Bramble and Kieron Dyer, the High Court has heard.
Lawyers for ex-players Matthew Le Tissier, Carl Cort and Frank Sinclair also say Mirror stories were hacked, which the publisher denies.
The court heard how the mobile number of one alleged victim of phone hacking was referred to as, ‘one for the PalmPilot.’
Buckley allegedly instructed a reporter to ‘take a peek’ at another alleged victim, which the counsel for the claimants, argued was a coded instruction to hack their phone.
The date of birth of a person was allegedly stored in Mr. Buckley’s PalmPilot, as part of an alleged hacking ‘database’, because the numerals could be the way to crack a voicemail PIN number.
David Sherborne, the barrister for the claimants, said: ‘James Saville (Deputy News Editor) passing on a date of birth to Nick Buckley,’ was done ‘to carry out the illegal activity.’
He added that, ‘Mr Buckley was involved in gathering and harvesting mobile numbers.’
As an example of how an associate of a hacking victim could be targeted, Mr Sherborne said: ‘The number of Kieron Dyer’s lawyer was in his PalmPilot.’
In his skeleton argument, Mr. Sherborne stated: ‘The presence of an individual’s details on Mr Buckley’s PalmPilot is therefore very strong evidence that the individual was the subject of voicemail interception and other illegal information-gathering by MGN journalists.’
But Mr. Richard Spearman QC, counsel for MGN, wrote that the claimants were relying ‘on small extracts’ of the PalmPilot.
He quoted a letter from the Metropolitan Police, referring to the risks associated with using such evidence, which stated that the problem with the Buckley PalmPilot material was ‘the potential for legitimate journalistic material being disclosed.’
But Mr. Sherborne, in response to the argument that his allegations were not fair, said that MGN should ‘not have hacked phones, they should not have concealed it and should not have lied to the Leveson Inquiry.’
On June 6th , the court was told how seven Deputy News and Showbiz Editors – including the Sunday Mirror’s James Saville referred to above - were alleged to have used unlawful news gathering techniques.
Yesterday, we published a court report revealing that Mr. Buckley was named 22 times in connection with unlawful information gathering, which in turn, followed a previous story in May about the former Sunday People Deputy Editor’s use of PIs.
Mr. Buckley was named documents in the context of a legal hearing determining an application for summary judgement against the Claimants on certain articles they allege were hacked or otherwise obtained or confirmed illegally.
The Claimants, in the current round of litigation, allege that Mirror editors and journalists hacked and ‘blagged’ on more than 1,000 newspaper articles, which they say were therefore unlawfully published.
But Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN) applied to the High Court to have a sample of 20 of these articles “struck-out” as having no prospect of success, in what they argued was a bid to save time and legal costs.
Potential victims of phone hacking, who launch cases against the Mirror, have to identify suspicious published articles, which they argue contain private information that had been illegally obtained.
This process is known as ‘pleading’ articles in a legal document called the ‘Particulars of Claim’.
In response, MGN have to issue their own pleading, known as the Defence, in which they can admit, deny or “not admit” unlawful activity in general against the claimant, and do the same in respect of each pleaded article.
If, at trial, the presiding judge, determines that the articles do breach privacy and have been derived from hacking or blagging, then the victims are awarded compensation on each article, as well as – in many cases - a sum for the period of hacking and balgging generally.
In practice, MGN settle most cases before trial for an amount often relating to the number of articles pleaded and time span of alleged illegal activity.
However, MGN is now claiming that celebrities and sports personalities are abusing the system – and pleading many stories that had been legally obtained and/or which do not breach privacy.
Counsel for the Mirror, Richard Spearman QC, told the court that many of these articles contained only information that was already in the public domain.
He said the information was not private, because details had already been published in other newspapers or in news agency copy, and that no illegal story-gathering methods had been used in publishing the story..
Counsel for the claimants, David Sherborne argued, from case law, that prior publication did not necessarily mean that information did not retain a quality of privacy, based on the intrusion that further publication represented.
He added that hacking and blagging could have been used, even if the ‘fruits’ of that illegality had not been published.
Mr. Sherborne maintained that these were all issues for trial, and not for summary judgment, especially when MGN were not bringing any journalist witnesses to testify about the sourcing of the story.
However, Mr. Spearman said the source of the stories, in general terms, were not “blags” or voicemail hacks but rather interviews given by the celebrities themselves, comments made by their agents, or sometimes “lifted” copy, such as court reports, from news agencies or rival publications.
He said MGN,
‘has found itself repeatedly faced in this Managed Litigation with claims for misuse of private information in respect of articles which, as soon as any research is done into the information said to have been private, it becomes clear were not revealing private information but instead merely repeating information that was already in the public domain – often as a result of disclosures by the Claimant themselves, or their agent, or as a result of matters being aired in open court.’
He blamed the claimants and the vast majority of legal advisers for not undertaking,
‘research or consideration of what was already in the public domain before an article was published before alleging that the article must have been the product of unlawful activity.’
‘When such matters are pointed out to Claimants in pre-action correspondence, they are largely ignored, This unreasonable approach increases costs and is a hindrance to efficient settlement negotiations.’
The Case Continues.