Murdoch Mayhem

Phone Hacking: Did Murdoch’s Papers Show Political Bias?

As a new trove of 174 victims make their claims in court, prominent Labour politicians are being thrust back into the spotlight of a scandal that’s dragging out longer than ever imagined, reports Peter Jukes.

09.18.12 1:55 AM ET

After nearly 70 arrests, a public inquiry, and the closure of the world’s oldest English-language newspaper, Rupert Murdoch must have hoped his newspapers’ annus horribilis in Britain was drawing to a close.

But two new revelations today suggest that the phone-hacking scandal surrounding his two most popular papers, the Sun and the now-shuttered News of the World, will run on and on.

On Monday, a second tranche of 174 new phone-hacking victims filed their final claims in civil court—a mixture of celebrities, agents, sports personalities, politicians, and their close friends or family, including Hugh Grant, David Beckham’s father, and the former Princess Royal, Sarah Ferguson. Earlier this year, another 50 cases settled their action against the News Corp. subsidiary MGN.

These new civil cases are the fruits of Operation Weeting, Scotland Yard’s major investigation into the thousands of personal records and details allegedly stored in the notebooks of Glenn Mulcaire, a private detective employed by News of the World.

However, Mulcaire was apparently not the busiest private detective employed by the defunct Sunday tabloid, and phone hacking may not have been the only alleged means of gaining compromising information on public figures.

Fresh revelations from The Independent and The Evening Standard on Monday concerned Southern Investigations, a South London detective firm regularly employed by News of the World for over 20 years despite the fact that one of its founders, Jonathan Rees, has been investigated five times for his links to the murder of his former partner, Daniel Morgan. Though Rees has been arrested during several investigations, he has never been charged for lack of evidence.

The Independent claims to have procured a copy of a witness statement of Derek Haslam, a former undercover police officer placed in Rees’s detective firm. Haslam claims that News of the World employed Southern Investigations to spy on a number of public figures—including Britain’s most senior police officer, Lord Stevens, when he was investigating the Morgan murder.  “I told my handlers that M.P.s, ministers, and Home Secretaries were targets,” writes Haslam in a sworn affidavit, according to The Independent. “They fell into two categories,” Haslam wrote, “one they could earn money from and the other was to use blackmail, influence, to do their own thing.”

Rees has admitted investigating some police officers, but says it was only in the public interest of rooting out wrongdoing. He was sentenced to six years in prison for a plot to plant cocaine on a mother during a child-custody case. On his release he was immediately reemployed by the then-editor of News of the World, Andy Coulson, who went on to be David Cameron’s chief press officer. Coulson is facing trial for phone hacking in England and charges of perjury in Scotland.

While the allegations of connections between Rees, Southern Investigations, and News of the World rumble on, among the new civil claims announced today are prominent Labour politicians, including Cherie Blair; the former Labour leader Neil Kinnock and his wife; the mother of the child of Ken Livingstone, former mayor of London; and a former business minister, Stephen Byers.

Combined with the cases settled in February—which included former deputy prime minister John Prescott, the Olympics minister Tessa Jowell, and Labour’s former press supremo Alistair Campbell—there are now over a dozen senior Labour Party figures allegedly targeted by phone hacking. But only one active Tory politician, David Davis, M.P., has filed a suit so far. Davis was Cameron’s main rival for leadership of the Conservative Party in 2005. (Davis’s office told The Daily Beast that Davis was not available for comment due to his travel schedule.)

One reason for the disproportionate focus on Labour politicians could be that they were in power during the period covered by Mulcaire’s notebooks. However, three Liberal Democrat M.P.s— deputy leader Simon Hughes, Mark Oaten, and mayoral candidate Brian Paddick—have joined the civil litigation based on the files. Does the bias toward the left and center politics reflect a political campaign by News of the World, perhaps reflecting its proprietor’s well-known conservative politics?

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A senior lawyer close to the hacking scandal thinks it’s more complicated than this. “Several Tory politicians including Boris Johnson were phone-hacking victims,” the lawyer claimed in an interview with The Daily Beast. “But when you invite Rupert Murdoch to join you as a guest at the Olympics, it’s probably not surprising you don’t want to take his company to  court.”

During the height of the phone-hacking scandal last year, Boris Johnson admitted he was approached by detectives and told he was most probably a victim of phone hacking. He told the London Assembly, “Quite frankly, why on earth should I go through some court case in which it would have inevitably involved going over all the pathetic so-called revelations that the News of the World had dug up.” (Requests for comment from Johnson’s office went unanswered.)

Rupert Murdoch—who has praised the current mayor of London on Twitter—was Johnson’s guest during an aquatics event during the London Olympics last month, where the media mogul was also snapped in an encounter with the outgoing culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, who oversaw News Corp.’s abortive bid to take over BSkyB.

“I’m not party political,” the lawyer told The Daily Beast, “but when the Tories claim to want transparency, and yet don’t come forward as witnesses, you have to ask yourself, what’s going on?”