A SENIOR reporter at Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun has been accused of phone hacking in the High Court.
The Paper’s Chief Foreign Correspondent Nick Parker is alleged to have illegally intercepted voicemails to get stories.
The court heard that information from expense forms, recently disclosed to the claimants, contained evidence of voicemail interception by Parker.
The allegation was made at a pre-trial review of a case, in which alleged victims of unlawful information gathering are suing News Group Newspapers (NGN), the company that owns Britain’s biggest selling daily newspaper.
The claimants include actress Liz Hurley, animal rights activist Heather Mills, singer Elton John and his husband David Furnish.
A six-week trial is scheduled to start between February 8-14, however the cases may be settled out-of-court before then.
Elton John and David Furnish’s cases are expected to be settled first, the court was told.
Lawyers for NGN do not admit that Parker hacked phones, or that the illegal practice ever happened at The Sun.
However, lawyers for the claimants stated that Parker acted illegally, even though his line managers knew and later the alleged criminality was covered-up by senior executives.
David Sherborne, counsel for the claimants, told the court that Nick Parker hacked voicemails “with the knowledge of the News Desk”, the group of mid-ranking managers who control what reporters do at a newspaper.
He added that there was also further evidence related to the deliberate “concealment by Senior Executives of wrongdoing by NGN”.
The “cover-up” is an important part of the hearings – known as the “concealment and destruction” case – and alleges executives deleted millions of emails, even though the police were investigating phone hacking.
Lawyers for NGN deny concealment – insisting emails were deleted for innocent reasons, such as the updating the email archiving system.
Parker’s alleged involvement in unlawful information gathering at The Sun is “not admitted by NGN”, explained Mr Sherborne.
The new evidence against Parker is based on expenses claims for top-up vouchers for “burner”, (unregistered) mobiles, to which his boss Chris Pharo allegedly agreed.
Mr. Sherborne said the expenses documents also revealed claims for buying top-up vouchers for unregistered SIM cards – to go with the “burners” – for what Parker consistently referred to as “sensitive phone inquiries”.
The transactions were again allegedly agreed by the News Desk and News Editor, Chris Pharo.
The court heard one such claim was made in January 2009.
Mr Sherborne added: “This expense claim appears under a £75 claim for a Christmas lunch with specialist tracer/medical contacts (agreed by Desk).”
On 3rd January 2009 there was a claim for £10 for a “Vodafone top up voucher for use on sensitive phone inquiries.”
In a legal document, Mr Sherborne added: “…this can only be evidence of further unlawful information gathering.”
There were more expense claims in 2009, for top-up vouchers used with untraceable phones for sensitive calls.
Examples of the documents were handed over to the Claimant group by the Metropolitan Police.
A form dated 22nd January 2009 to 17th February 2009 features claims for a “top up voucher for use with untraceable phone for use on sensitive enquiries’ and a ‘top up voucher for use on sensitive calls.”
Another form dated 6th March 2009 to 14th March 2009 was for the “purchase of pay as you go top up vouchers for use with unregistered sim cards while making sensitive calls (authorised by Desk)” and “ditto” – the total amount claimed for this is £20.
A third form dated 22nd May 2009 to 2nd June 2009 was for the “purchase of Vodafone top up vouchers for use with unregistered sim card when making sensitive calls (purchased agreed by Desk)” and claims for three sets of “Vodafone vouchers” – the amount claimed is £30.
Mr Sherborne said: ‘The Claimants’ position is that these documents are cogent evidence of voicemail interception at The Sun and that there is no other credible explanation for such purchases.
Two of the stories allegedly resulting from these top-up payment mobile calls related to musician Paul Weller, according to Mr. Sherborne.
He added that around 300 sheets of expense forms were redacted – partially blanked out – and asked the court to order NGN to un-redact the documents, to reveal important information such as the name of an editor who approved of Parker’s payments.
Parker was buying some of the top-ups from Carphone Warehouse using the name Charlie Parker.
Mr. Sherborned stated: “These documents are plainly relevant to the Claimants’ pleaded case and adversely affect NGN’s case.”
Mr Sherborne said the claimants’ position was that these documents were evidence of voicemail interception at The Sun. NGN is not admitting that Parker hacked voicemails.
Mr. Sherborne raised the issue of Nick Parker because he was explaining the need for for the court to allow more disclosure from NGN.
He requested the company hand over un-redacted expense dockets for Parker and for cash payment documents.
So far, the claimants have only seen examples of Parker’s expenses as previously disclosed by NGN to the Metropolitan Police as part of Operation Elveden, its five-year investigation of cash bribes to public officials.
The court heard NGN had previously resisted disclosing cash payment requests and had not admitted they contained evidence of criminal activity.
Clare Montgomery QC, counsel for NGN, said her client was not in a position to consider the redactions because the claimants had not filed their evidence in good time.
The judge, The Honourable Justice Mann, suggested that she produce a witness statement within seven days as to what expense documents can be found and what redactions can be made.