The latest shameful milestone in the corruption of Britain by its own press was passed last week, an event only sparingly reported by that same press. Elton John, Elizabeth Hurley, Heather Mills and two others accepted out-of-court settlements for their phone hacking claims against the Murdoch papers. 

That may sound like justice at work but it is the polar opposite.

One giveaway is the timing. These deals were done virtually on the steps of the court; that is to say, the claimants were persuaded to settle only days before their cases were due to be heard in a public civil trial, complete with evidence, witnesses and cross-examinations.

Another, a little more discreet, is the money. The cash sums paid were not disclosed but I understand that some of them were extraordinarily high. Not so long ago, serious, well-documented hacking claims were settled for £50,000 and less. Murdoch’s company is now paying ten times that.

This now happens regularly. It is the fourth occasion in 18 months on which News Group Newspapers (NGN), the publisher of the Sun, has paid whatever it took to prevent a hacking trial. The company is, shall we say, extremely keen to avoid such an event, for two main reasons.

Wealth of evidence

First, lawyers acting for the claimants have amassed a mountain of evidence suggesting not only that the illegal practices of hacking and blagging were rife in the company over a long period, but also that this was endorsed and driven by senior executives who subsequently engaged in an elaborate, criminal cover-up.

Second, the claimants’ case was that it was not only the now-defunct News of the World that engaged in these activities but also the Sun, still extant and still the UK’s best-selling daily paper. The Sun’s involvement is something the corporation continues to deny.

If NGN were to defend such allegations in a civil trial, their stonewalling and bland denials would not be enough; company executives would either have to answer allegations in detail under cross-examination or be seen to be refusing to respond, and be judged accordingly.

And at the end of such a trial the Sun might be formally declared to have hacked phones under the editorship of Rebekah Brooks (still, today, CEO of the Murdoch papers in the UK), and  executives such as Brooks and James Murdoch might be found to have lied and destroyed evidence.

The measure of the company’s desperation to avoid such a fate is that it will now pay many times over the odds to get claimants to go away. (Not surprisingly, while dozens of claimants have taken the money so far, a queue of 100 more lies in wait.)

Pause a moment to think what this means. In broad daylight, and perfectly legally, Rupert Murdoch’s company is repeatedly buying its way out of civil court accountability for its past actions.

And if you want to know what that kind of accountability looks like, read this: It is the little-publicised 2015 judgment against the Mirror papers in the phone hacking case brought by Shobna Gulati and others and it is an astonishing and devastating indictment of the Mirror papers and their management.

No excuses

What NGN is doing might be thought corrupt, yet there are people in the press industry prepared to make excuses for it. Let’s look at those excuses.

‘It’s just rich celebs topping up their wealth.’ Rubbish. First, everything we know tells us that something like three-quarters of those whose phones were hacked were not wealthy or famous. If these less well-known people find it harder to achieve any kind of justice it is not their fault, but because it’s harder for them to mount a case and because news publishers refuse to admit the scale of their fault.

‘It’s all a long time ago and the industry has changed.’ Rubbish. Even if phone hacking has stopped (and we only have their word for that), the industry has not cleaned house and nothing credible has been done to ensure that journalists and other employees or contractors don’t continue to break the law in other ways. And remember such crimes are normally all but untraceable, only ever surfacing by accident.

‘The law is taking its course so there’s nothing to complain about.’ Rubbish. The cash that Murdoch’s company is paying in settlements, high as it is by UK court standards, is peanuts to them. They are mocking the justice system and dodging genuine accountability before the law. 

‘It’s not the Murdoch payments that stop the cases going to trial, it’s the claimants accepting them.’ Rubbish again. Any claimant rejecting payment and insisting on going to trial would risk having to pay the huge costs afterwards. They can’t be blamed for settling, or for a system that leaves them little choice.

Where are the police?

There is no escaping it: what is happening is an outrage. The civil courts are simply the wrong place to deal with very serious allegations of criminal wrongdoing. This raises a big question. Where are the police? The evidence against the papers has been piling up, so is it not time that the Metropolitan Police looked into this again, to establish whether there are grounds for criminal charges?

Consider the Mirror company, which has publicly admitted the following: 

‘A number of its senior employees, including executives, editors and journalists, condoned, encouraged or actively turned a blind eye to the widespread culture of unlawful information-gathering activities at all three of its newspapers for many years and actively sought to conceal its wrongdoing from its many victims of intrusion.’

Does that sound like a criminal conspiracy to you? Yet not one senior executive, or editor, or former executive, or former editor at that company (now renamed Reach), has even faced trial. In the Gulati judgment (see above), the judge found as follows in the case of one former editor:

‘In evidence given to the Leveson inquiry Ms Tina Weaver, then still editor of the Sunday Mirror, denied knowledge of phone hacking or even of gossip of it. I have already found that she was involved in it, and she clearly had knowledge of it in the evidence I have referred to, and in the light of those findings this evidence was wrong.’

Given that Leveson evidence was given under oath, there seems to be a finding here of both perjury and hacking, yet Weaver has never (how shall I put this?) been given the opportunity to clear her name in the criminal courts.

The Metropolitan Police has not covered itself in glory on hacking in the past and it should take care not to repeat past mistakes.

In 2006/7 it knew there had been numerous perpetrators and hundreds of victims, yet it let the matter drop after two token convictions and without informing victims. And when Nick Davies blew the scandal open in 2009 the Met  publicly disputed his account. We needed an avalanche of evidence before they began to do their job, and even then, though eventually there were convictions, they were merely of footsoldiers (the one exception being former News of the World editor Andy Coulson).

Of course the best way of addressing this large-scale scandal in a fair, open and holistic way would be a judge-led public inquiry, but since the government saw fit to oblige its press chums by cancelling Leveson 2 last year that is not a prospect for the moment. 

Murdoch and company should not be allowed to buy immunity from justice for senior employees past and present. The Mirror should not be allowed to escape a full accounting for crimes the company has admitted. The Metropolitan Police should open a new inquiry and look afresh at the phone hacking evidence that has been piling up in the civil courts.