Just as the phone-hacking scandal had faded—News Corp. had settled most of the hundreds of legal claims filed by phone-hacking victims and the conversation was moving on—British police on Wednesday arrested six former journalists from News of the World.
The arrests on suspicion of phone hacking open up a whole new line of inquiry for the police—as well as the potential for another round of civil claims.
A new tranche of high-profile phone-hacking victims would also be a financial and legal nightmare for News Corp.’s London publishing subsidiary, only months away from separate flotation as a new company.
The six who were reportedly arrested—Jane Atkinson, Rav Singh, Polly Graham, Jules Stenson, Matt Nixson, Rachel Richardson—are all former journalists at News of the World who have not been arrested before on suspicion of phone hacking. Richardson and Atkinson are currently employed by Murdoch’s daily tabloid, The Sun. Jules Stenson was a former assistant editor and features editor, and accused Guardian journalist Nick Davies, who broke the Milly Dowler story, of “shoddy journalism” on BBC Newsnight.
Two years ago, Scotland Yard launched Operation Weeting, an inquiry that led to the discovery of thousands of names of phone-hacking victims in the notebooks of private investigator Glenn Mulcaire. But on Wednesday, police stated that the arrests were related to suspected phone hacking taking place from between 2005 and 2006. At that time, Mulcaire and the News of the World’s royal reporter, Clive Goodman, were already under investigation for hacking the phones of aides to the royal princes, Harry and William, suggesting that, if phone hacking indeed took place then, it wasn’t related to Mulcaire but someone else.
In the course of the investigation, more than 100 people have been arrested on suspicion of phone hacking, briber,y and privacy intrusion. Several of those arrested have been private detectives, suggesting that the “rogue investigator” defense is as unlikely as the “rogue reporter.”
Apart from senior executives (including Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson who face trial later this year), the journalists arrested up until now all worked on the news desk of News of the World. Wednesday’s arrests are all former members of the features desk, which competed intensively with the news desk over scoops and exposés.
No victims of this new line of inquiry have yet been named, though Steven Heffer, a lawyer representing more than 100 existing claimants, is reported to have been contacted by client who has already sued News International with “new evidence and documents, which appears to justify an entirely new claim being made.”
The previous settlement would not prevent a new damages claim, Heffer told the Press Gazette, because “there was a specific exception in the court order for any claim which might arise from new evidence which emerged at a later date.”
The U.K. has a six-year statute of limitations from notification of a breach of privacy to a case being filed, so Murdoch’s legal misery over phone hacking could continue until 2019.