High Court: Mirror’s legal department knew about hacking for years

Prince Harry: Claim succeeded

The legal department at Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN) was aware of phone hacking far earlier than it admitted, the High Court found last week in the claim brought by Prince Harry.

Mr Justice Fancourt found that a “joke” about hacking made by Marcus Partington, latterly Trinity Mirror plc’s (TM) group legal director, was known across Fleet Street.

Prince Harry and three other claimants were suing MGN over numerous occasions of alleged misuse of private information.

A key and “hard-fought” issue was whether TM’s board – owner of MGN – and the in-house legal team knew about and condoned widespread and habitual use of voicemail interception (VMI) and other unlawful information gathering (UIG) activities, and then concealed them from victims, shareholders and the public.

The focus was on group CEO Sly Bailey (2003-2012), barrister Paul Vickers, company secretary, head of group legal services and director (1999-2014, and before that a director of MGN), and Mr Partington (in-house lawyer at The People from 1997, the Mirror from 2002, deputy group legal director of TM in April 2007 and group legal director from 2014 to 2021).

Ms Bailey denied knowledge of any UIG, with the two lawyers denying that they knew about any illegal conduct, “with the implication that it was concealed from them until December 2013”.

The judge found “compelling evidence” that the editors of MGN’s national newspaper “knew very well that VMI was being used extensively and habitually and that they were happy to take the benefits of it, and of connected and related UIG being conducted by journalists and [private investigators].

“There is also clear evidence that the legal departments of the newspapers knew that these methods were being used; that Mr Vickers, through Mr Partington and/or others in the legal department, knew that VMI was being conducted, as early as 2003, if not before; and that he ignored and Ms Bailey turned a blind eye to the extent to which illegal practices were going on at MGN.”

Fancourt J said Mr Vickers and Ms Bailey maintained a “pretence” that there was no credible evidence of VMI at MGN.

“Both of them knew that there was evidence. What Ms Bailey and Mr Vickers really meant by this expression was that there was no irrefutable proof, as opposed to detailed allegations and evidence; but the reason why there was no proof was that the board desisted from investigating, as it clearly should have done.”

Fancourt J said it was only when hacking could be “concealed no longer” – when the police provided the clear proof in December 2013 – that MGN would have accepted, internally, that it could no longer deny it. MGN had previously tried to strike out phone hacking claims.

Even then, MGN “tried to avoid disclosure, and, when that failed, concealed the extent of the UIG and VMI that had been carried on by not disclosing material documents that it knew that it had”.

The judge said: “I am satisfied, in short, that Mr Vickers and Ms Bailey knew about – or, which amounts to the same thing, turned a blind eye to – the extensive and habitual VMI and UIG being carried on.

“It is obvious that Ms Bailey did not know everything that was going on, and she knew less than Mr Vickers and Mr Partington did, but she knew enough to realise that there was unlawful activity being conducted at all three newspapers.

“That was from early 2007 at the latest, in her case, and from 2003 at the latest in Mr Vickers’ case. As a result, the editors and journalists were enabled to carry on with their unlawful and illegal activities until the end of 2011, albeit it was done less, and more cautiously, after 2006.”

Fancourt J found that Mr Partington would have been aware of UIG from 1999 and was aware of phone hacking activities from no later than the end of 2003, but probably earlier.

“The claimants have therefore proved their case that the legal department of MGN knew about phone hacking. There was no formal report to the board.

“I have found that, on the ‘no surprises’ understanding between them, Mr Partington told Mr Vickers what he knew. Mr Vickers was the group head of legal and a main board director, so it cannot be said that the legal department concealed VMI and UIG from their employer.”

Mr Vickers and Ms Bailey’s knowledge was attributed to the board, even though the board as a whole did not know.

MGN had denied the allegations, arguing too that Mr Partington’s knowledge would be irrelevant since, as an employed lawyer, he had no independent duty or power to stop any UIG and could not make any public disclosure about matters that were confidential.

Fancourt J said: “However, as a lawyer, Mr Partington (and indeed the other employed lawyers) would have been expected to advise their client of the fact that unlawful and illegal activities were taking place, when they were aware of them, and to advise the head of group legal, the CEO or the board what they should do.

“The claimants did not advance any case that the commission of crimes entitled Mr Partington to override MGN’s privilege in their communications.”

The judge described it as “remarkable” that MGN complained that the truth was concealed from the board “but does not state who concealed it”.

“It is remarkable because of the seriousness of the allegations against the board and because MGN must now know, if there was such concealment, who was responsible for it.”

He said this had resulted in Ms Bailey, Mr Vickers and the company’s finance director all assuring the Leveson inquiry that there was no evidence of phone hacking.

Fancourt J said: “I regret therefore that I am unable to accept the truth of Mr Vickers’ denials of awareness of illegality and his explanation for not investigating VMI at a much earlier time than actually occurred.

“My suspicion is that Mr Vickers knew what was happening all along – he struck me as the sort of person who would know most of what was happening in his company – but there is no evidence to support that conclusion.”

The judge referred to evidence from Dan Evans, a former MGN and News UK journalist turned phone-hacking whistleblower who was handed a suspended sentence for hacking in 2014.

“Mr Evans said that on one occasion, early in his tutelage into the dark arts of phone hacking (so in early to mid-2003), he was in the Sunday Mirror office one Saturday morning, sitting near [head of content Nick Buckley], when Mr Partington walked by and said to Mr Buckley ‘Hello Nick – have I got any messages this morning?’

“Mr Evans said that Mr Partington said it while staring directly at him, smiling, and there was laughter. Mr Evans said that he felt surprised then that Mr Partington knew about his phone hacking role.”

Although Fancourt J found the references to Mr Partington looking at him and to laughter “embellishments to the story that Mr Evans has added, I accept the essential truth of the account”.

He went on: “I do not accept Mr Partington’s attempt to explain away the exchange as being either a facetious response to an article published in October 2002 or as being a genuine inquiry about whether anyone had left a message for him that morning at work.

“The two alternative explanations are forced, and inconsistent with each other, and indeed Mr Partington said in cross-examination that he was ‘doing my best to come up with an explanation which is my position’. It is telling that the story of the joke did the rounds in Fleet Street.”

The judge said Mr Partington also went “too far in trying to minimise the degree of knowledge and involvement of the in-house lawyer” in stories, preferring other evidence that, with certain stories, “the lawyer would need to know, and would know, the nature of the source”.

The judge found for Prince Harry and actor Michael Turner, albeit in relation to only some of the stories they alleged had been illegally obtained, and held the other two statute-barred, even though articles about them had been illegally obtained as well.

We have attempted to contact Mr Vickers and Mr Partington.

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