Phone tapping row will stir up a hornet’s nest of legal
actionsThe ‘Phonegate’ scandal is set to reignite tomorrow when senior News of the World executives give evidence to a committee of MPs. Belfast Telegraph legal expert Walter Greenwood|predicts this one will run and run
Clockwise, from top: Max Clifford, Elle Macpherson and Vanessa Feltz are all consulting lawyers after their names appeared on a celebrity “hit-list”
The new accusations that London journalists have been involved in widespread tapping of the mobile phones of celebrities could stir up a hornet’s nest of legal actions.
The House of Commons Select Committee on Culture and Media, which spent a morning hearing witnesses on the complaints last week, is to consider fresh evidence tomorrow.
Journalists, or private investigators on their behalf, could, it is alleged, have tapped into the private conversations of people like John Prescott, Labour’s former deputy prime minister.
Who could be stung if phonetapping is proved?
The law makes it a criminal offence for anyone to be involved in interception and it also allows for a claim to be made against them in the civil courts, where damages awarded could reach six figures.
London media lawyers are said to be ready to handle claims on behalf of their famous clients.
The row could still fizzle out, however.
To some people the accusations are an old story.
It was more than two years ago that Clive Goodman, the News of the World’s royal editor, and private investigator Glenn Mulcaine were jailed for hacking into the phones of royal aides.
The Guardian newspaper re-ignited the row earlier this month with fresh allegations that more than 3,000 people were at risk of having their private conversations intercepted by the News of the World.
The newspaper is said to have paid £700,000 to Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers Association, whose phone was tapped, in a secret out-of-court settlement.
News International, parent company of the News of the World, has not denied this settlement.
Guardian journalist Nick Davies, giving evidence to the Select Committee, accused NoW’s chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck of being involved in hacking and claimed to have the names of 27 other reporters employed by the paper and its sister publication The Sun who had been implicated.
News International put out a statement saying it was untrue that its reporters or anyone else hacked the voicemail of John Prescott.
It also said it was untrue that its journalists had used private investigators to hack into the phones of public figures
Meanwhile, John Yates, an assistant commissioner at New Scotland Yard, said he had not been asked to look into any complaints beyond the 2007 affair of the NoW royal editor and had not seen any fresh evidence that would justify re-opening an investigation.
If Scotland Yard were to find evidence of hacking, prosecutors would have at their disposal the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), which makes it an offence to tap into a message being transmitted by phone or other telecommunications system.
A claim for damages in the civil courts could be brought for either intrusion into privacy or for a breach of the Data Protection Act which vetoes unauthorised processing of personal data.
An exception may be made for interception which takes place where there is a legitimate public interest — to be distinguished from what is merely of interest to the public.
The test for wrongful acts to be excused in the public interest is a high one.
Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights stipulates that everyone has a right to respect for private and family life, but includes among the exceptions the interests of public safety and the protection of health or morals.
The Press Complaints Commission, to which both the News of the World and The Guardian subscribe, provides for similar exceptions, with an additional item for preventing the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.
The director of the commission, Tim Toulmin, told the Select Committee last week that any fresh evidence of journalists engaging in phonetapping would be investigated “right away”.
Tomorrow’s session of the Commons committee should go some way towards showing whether there is any evidence to back up the new allegations.
Walter Greenwood is joint-editor of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists (Oxford University Press, £18.99)