article

08.22.11

Murdoch Scandal’s Shadow Man

Glenn Mulcaire, the private eye who hacked phones for News of the World, has kept a low profile, but a lawsuit is pushing him into the spotlight—and demanding he name names. Brian Cathcart on why that’s bad news for the Murdochs.

The man at the very center of the British phone-hacking scandal has proved remarkably adept at keeping his secrets. When the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire was first arrested in 2006 for hacking on behalf of News of the World he said nothing to police interrogators. Because he then pleaded guilty and no trial was necessary, he never faced cross-examination in court about what he had done.

Ever since his release in 2007, he has waged a sustained legal campaign to block the release of information about his activities to those hacking victims who have sued Rupert Murdoch’s U.K. company, News International. On the occasions when judges found against him, he has been quick to appeal to higher courts, further stretching and delaying the process.

For most of this time the documentation seized from his office and home in 2006 lay unexamined and unprocessed in trash bags in a police evidence pound. Only last year did serious scrutiny begin, and although the material is voluminous and rich—telling us much of what we know to date—a lot of it is also fragmentary and difficult for anyone but the author to understand.

Mulcaire, meanwhile, has made only one brief public statement, last month, in which he apologized to those he has hurt and pleaded that he acted under ‘relentless pressure’ from News of the World.

Back in Mulcaire’s private-investigating days his firm’s email address was shadowmen.uk and he seems to have lived up to the label. It is quite an achievement for the former professional soccer player now known to have been the hub of the newspaper’s hacking activity, a man who built up a directory of thousands of phone numbers and mobile PINS, and who, though never formally on the staff, was paid a salary of £102,000 plus extras.

Having tried a policy of silence and failed, Mulcaire may be better off adopting a policy of complete openness—and he is the person who knows most in this entire affair.

Now, however, Mulcaire is being pushed into the spotlight and—as with almost every other recent development in this scandal—this looks like bad news for the Murdochs.

Part of Mulcaire’s problem is money. A month ago, James Murdoch, under questioning from members of Parliament, confirmed that his company had been paying for Mulcaire’s lawyers and, duly embarrassed, promised to halt that flow of cash. Since Mulcaire is not privately wealthy and British justice is very expensive, that in principle strips the investigator of his ability to defend his own interests in the dozens of civil lawsuits against News International.

In what British tabloids might call a “bizarre twist,” Mulcaire, a convicted criminal, is now suing his former employers in an apparent effort to force them to resume paying his legal bills.

What looks like a rift may, however, be something different, because it remains the case that Mulcaire’s legal interests and those of News International overlap considerably. Mulcaire’s reticence, after all, has always suited News International, whose principal tactic in the civil courts has been to avoid disclosure. So, if Muclaire were to win his case against them and get back the flow of money for his lawyers’ bills, News International would probably not be very upset.

By then, however, it may be too late.

The Guardian, which led the way in uncovering the hacking scandal, has reported that, finally, Mulcaire will have to start naming names by the end of the month. This is the latest stage in a legal wrangle worthy of Charles Dickens, and it is only one of several that Mulcaire has been engaged in.

The actor and comedian Steve Coogan, who is among those suing News International for breaching his privacy by hacking his voicemails, has been demanding, among many other things, that Mulcaire reveal to him and to the courts who at News of the World gave the orders. Coogan wants to know not only in relation to his own voicemails, but also in relation to those of several others whom Mulcaire is known to have hacked.

Mulcaire resisted this on various legal grounds, and having lost those arguments, he sought leave to appeal, but The Guardian, quoting both Coogan and his lawyer, reports that the judge in the case, Justice Toulson, has said no. This means that Mulcaire is now on 10 days’ notice to reveal who instructed him to hack the voicemails of six people: the model Elle Macpherson; a well-known publicity agent, Max Clifford; a leading Liberal Democrat MP, Simon Hughes; and three people in the soccer world—an agent, the chief of the players’ union, and a lawyer. With one exception, these are people he admitted to hacking in 2006 by his guilty plea.

Who will he name as his controllers at News of the World? There are unlikely to be big surprises at this stage, since the police have been working out the answers over recent months and arresting people (all of whom, so far as we know, have denied wrongdoing). But this must be a landmark in this scandal, because, first, Mulcaire’s evidence is of such special importance, and second, it appears to be the beginning of the end of his resistance.

Once he starts making revelations, even under legal duress, his position is significantly altered. Having tried a policy of silence and failed, he may be better off adopting a policy of complete openness, and he is the person who knows most in this entire affair.