The phone-hacking scandal that shuttered Rupert Murdoch’s bestselling British Sunday paper The News of the World and led to the resignation and arrests of several of his top U.K. executives has now officially crossed the Atlantic.
A civil suit filed June 13 by Eunice Huthart, a former body double for Angelina Jolie, claims that messages from both the actress and members of Huthart’s family were intercepted and occasionally deleted by employees of News Corp.’s London subsidiary who were “hacking her cellular telephone as a means to obtain information about Ms Jolie." She seeks damages for violations of both Californian and federal law over “intrusion into private affairs.”
Huthart was Jolie’s body stunt double from the Tomb Raider series 10 years ago and in the more recent Salt. According to reports, she noticed that voicemail messages were being lost in the system around 2004 and 2005, when she was living with Jolie in California during the filming of Mr. & Mrs. Smith.
On April 1, 2005, Huthart alleges that the daily Sun published a story with the headline "Brad's £4M Pad Is Jolie Nice,” using her voicemails as a source. At the time, "no one except Brad Pitt's bodyguard, Ms. Jolie's bodyguard, their respective personal assistants and plaintiff knew that Brad Pitt and Ms. Jolie were now an 'item,'" Huthart says in her complaint. A month later, the Sunday News of the World published a story about Jolie’s plan to quit acting, and the Sun followed up a few days later with a story about Jolie enjoying off-road biking. Huthart alleges that these stories derived from accessing her voice messages.
Huthart claims that deleted messages included pleas from her daughter over bullying at school and messages from her husband. As with the case of Milly Dowler, the murdered teenager whose phone was hacked by News of the World, the deletions could have been deliberate or part of the phone system’s automated disposal of messages that have already been listened to. Huthart told the BBC that her phone number and access details appear in the files of a private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, who was prosecuted in 2006 for hacking the phones of aides to the royal princes, William and Harry.
Though Mulcaire’s files contained thousands of details, the police closed the criminal investigations after his conviction in 2007. It was only through four more years of civil litigation by celebrities including Sienna Miller and politicians like former deputy prime minister John Prescott that the industrial scale of phone hacking was revealed. Targets including celebrities, most of Tony Blair’s aides, senior cabinet ministers, and innocent families caught up in the news because their relatives were victims of murder or terrorism. The 2011 scandal led to the resignation of two of Britain’s most senior police officers, the public grilling of Rupert Murdoch and his son James in Parliament, and their withdrawal of a $16 billion bid for complete control of Britain’s most lucrative broadcaster, BSkyB.
In the last two years, hundreds of civil claims have been settled by News Corp. subsidiaries in the U.K., and over 100 journalists and their police informants have been arrested for privacy intrusion and a related police bribes scandal. High-profile court trials of the former CEO of News International, Rebekah Brooks, and her former deputy and prime minister David Cameron’s press supremo, Andy Coulson, are due to start in September. Brooks faces a variety of charges, including hacking the phones of Pitt and Jolie. They both pleaded not guilty to all charges late last month, and Coulson appeared in a separate charge of perjury in Glasgow last week (no plea was made).
The news of a civil suit will be another blow to the 82-year-old media mogul, who filed for divorce from Wendi Deng, his third wife, on Friday and is in the process of demerging his troubled print and publishing assets from the thriving pay TV and movie business. In May News Corp. was forced by its insurer to settle a shareholder suit for $130 million and instituted new corporate governance, whistleblower hotlines, and claw-back schemes for errant executives. By the end of June the profitable parts of the company will be demerged into a new company, 21st Century Fox Group, with the residual publishing business remaining as a much reduced News Corp (without the period). While the larger, richer company will retain some liability for civil damages arising from the phone-hacking scandal, the SEC filings make clear that it will not indemnify “violations of law ... criminal fines or penalties.”
Meanwhile, a write-down of News Corp. stock suggests that it is expecting between $1.2 billion and $1.4 billion in fines from the Department of Justice after a two-year investigation into possible breaches of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which outlaws corrupt payments to foreign officials.
In this context, the hacking scandal on U.S. soil looks unwelcome but not financially punitive. However, it is a PR nightmare, and this could be the first of several suits. According to The Guardian, Huthart is being represented by Norman Siegel, a New York lawyer who has been working in conjunction with Mark Lewis, the lawyer representing the Dowler family. Two years ago Siegel was retained by 20 families of 9/11 victims after allegations, hotly denied by News Corp. and since unproven, that victims of the World Trade Center terror attack were also hacked by News of the World.