01.19.12

Rupert Murdoch pays compensation to 37 victims of phone hacking

Rupert Murdoch pays compensation to 37 victims of the News of the World’s endemic phone-hacking practice—but lawyers say there are hundreds more cases to be settled.

Rupert Murdoch’s media empire faces a possible £10 million compensation bill, it emerged today, after the High Court in London heard that 37 victims have settled damages claims with Murdoch’s company for illegally intercepting their phones.

The list of claimants includes senior politicians, singers, sports stars, actors, television personalities, journalists, the parents of murdered children, and the son of a serial killer, the High Court heard. Among them is actor Jude Law, who was awarded $200,000 and said he was kept under “constant surveillance” by Murdoch’s News of the World newspaper, even while on U.S. soil, which could lead to action against News Corp., which is based in the United States. Law’s personal assistant and his former public relations adviser were awarded settlements, as was his ex-wife, Sadie Frost, who received $120,000. Police allowed her to listen to the intercepted voice messages she’d left for the couple’s nanny between 2005 and 2006.

John Prescott, the former deputy prime minister, received $60,000, and Chris Bryant, a Labourite member of parliament, was paid $45,000. Guy Pelly, a close friend of Prince Harry's, received $60,000.

The figures have been described as an “informal tariff” for the other 742 confirmed victims. Last April, News International set up a compensation fund of $30 million with the sole intention of settling claims before they got to court.

The settlement figures for 15 of the claimants were made public as lawyers accused senior employees at News International of covering up the scale on which News of the World was involved illegal activity. Outside the High Court, the lawyers made a statement: “News Group [NGN is a subsidiary of News International] has agreed to compensation being assessed on the basis that senior employees and directors of NGN knew about the wrongdoing and sought to conceal it by deliberately deceiving investigators and destroying evidence.”

The lawyers attacked News International’s previous attempts to blame phone hacking on one “rogue reporter” and said the company had “deliberately destroyed” the personal computers of eight reporters at News of the World.

“I am aware of executives who witnessed practices which would send the share price crashing through the floor,” said Neville Thurlbeck.

They said: “Documents relating to the nature and scale of the conspiracy, a cover-up and the destruction of evidence/email archives by News Group have now been disclosed to the claimants.”

News Group has neither agreed with nor denied those claims.

However, Neville Thurlbeck, the former chief reporter at News of The World, responded to the news this afternoon, saying, “Much more evidence against News International will come in the future. I worked there from 1988 onwards, and I am aware of executives who witnessed practices which would send the share price crashing through the floor.”

Court 16 at the High Court was jampacked during the proceedings, leaving standing room only for journalists and lawyers as the statements of claimants were read out.

Jude Law said: “For several years leading up to 2006, I was suspicious about how information concerning my private life was coming out in the press. I changed my phones, I had my house swept for bugs, but still the information kept being published. I started to become distrustful of people close to me. I was truly appalled by what I was shown by the police and by what my lawyers have discovered. It is clear that I, along with many others, was kept under constant surveillance for a number of years. No aspect of my private life was safe from intrusion by News Group Newspapers, including the lives of my children and the people that work for me. It was not just that my phone messages were listened to. News Group also paid people to watch me and my house for days at a time and to follow me and those close to me, both in this country and abroad.”

Christopher Shipman, the son of serial killer Harold Shipman, had his email account hacked in 2004, after his father committed suicide in prison. He told the court in a statement that he was “so horrified” by what he learned from police about the hacking of his personal messages, he “finds it hard to put into words.”

Prescott, who was the deputy prime minister under Tony Blair, told his local paper, the Hull Daily Mail: “Today’s court decision at long last brings clarity, apology, and compensation for the years of hacking into my telephone messages by Rupert Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers. It follows years of aggressive denials and a cavalier approach to private information and the law. These denials were supported by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) and the inaction of senior officers of the Metropolitan Police.”

It emerged that among the claimants was Prescott’s former chief of staff, Joan Hammell, who also received $60,000. Other senior politicians who say they have settled with News International include the former Labour cabinet ministers David Blunkett and Tessa Jowell.

News International has already paid out $3 million to the family of the murdered school girl Milly Dowler, as well as $1.5 million to Max Clifford, a public-relations executive famous for negotiating kiss-and-tell deals.

Tamsin Allen, a lawyer at Bindmans LLP, said: “The claimants now have some clarity about what happened to them in the years between 2000 and 2005 and satisfaction that justice has finally been done. Many of them have wondered for years how tabloid newspapers were able to obtain secret personal information about them, even suspecting their closes friends and relatives … News Group’s misguided decision to defend claims aggressively made matters worse … The Leveson Inquiry will, in time, reveal to the public the full extent of the perversion of good journalistic standards at the News of the World during the phone-hacking years.”

Mark Lewis, a lawyer for other hacked victims, however, told the Daily Mail: “Fewer than 1 percent of the people who were hacked have settled their cases. There are many more cases in the pipeline … This is too early to celebrate. We’re not even at the end of the beginning.”

The first hearings of those cases that have not settled will begin Feb. 13.