Phone hacking in the British press: three key moments in the scandal – and what happens next


Prince Harry has emerged as the victor in his civil case against Mirror Group Newspapers. The judge, Mr Justice Fanning, ruled that on the balance of probabilities a sample of 15 out of 33 articles examined by his court were written as result of phone hacking and other illegal measures. In an exhaustive report weighing in at 386 pages, Fanning stated that there was evidence of “widespread and habitual” use of phone hacking at the Mirror newspapers.

Harry was awarded damages of £140,600 and said in a subsequent statement: “Today is a great day for truth, as well as accountability. This case is not just about hacking – it is about a systemic practice of unlawful and appalling behaviour, followed by cover-ups and destruction of evidence, the shocking scale of which can only be revealed through these proceedings.”

That Harry was in a bullish mood was entirely understandable. But his case is only the latest development in a series of events which has rocked the tabloid press in the UK over the past decade or so.

1. The closure of the News of the World

In July 2011, the Guardian claimed that journalists on the News of the World had hacked into the phone messages of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. Not only this, but messages were also removed to make room for more, giving her parents the impression she was still alive and picking up her messages.

A copy of the News of the World with a front page that reads 'Thank you and goodbye'.
The final issue of The News of the World.
Alamy

The facts of the case have never been satisfactorily concluded, but the reporting on this and other allegations of phone hacking, as well as the strength of the public reaction, were enough to prompt the closure of the News of the World that same month. The paper had been one of the most widely read in the UK.

In a statement at the time, James Murdoch, son of Rupert, said: “The News of the World and News International failed to get to the bottom of repeated wrongdoing that occurred without conscience or legitimate purpose.”

2. The Leveson Inquiry

Seemingly moved by the widespread vitriol attracted by the News of the World, David Cameron, the prime minister at the time, commissioned the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press.

The inquiry was asked to make recommendations on how more ethical and professional standards could be achieved. The aim was to find a “new, more effective policy and regulatory regime for the press”.

When the inquiry’s report was published in 2012, the tabloid press was singled out for criticism. Its conduct over the years, said the report, could “only be described as outrageous”.

Leveson recommended a new organisation be created to regulate the press. This should be entirely independent in composition and free from all political and commercial involvement.

The body that did ultimately emerge from the inquiry was the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso), which has regulated the press ever since but does not fit with the Leveson vision of independence.

The second part of the Leveson inquiry was meant to consider the relationship between the police and journalists, but never actually took place. It was shelved in 2018. The government’s reasoning for this decision was that it considered the exercise “costly and time consuming”.

3. Journalism in the dock: phone-hacking trials

In 2014 key journalists who had worked for the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World were charged with conspiring to hack voicemails. Among those involved were former editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, who had subsequently gone on to become David Cameron’s director of communications at Number 10.

In the event, Brooks was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing while Coulson was jailed for 18 months for conspiracy to hack phones.

The trials ahead

If Harry sounded confident in his victory over the Mirror, it’s maybe because he sees this battle as evidence that he is destined to prevail in a much longer war against the press.

Prince Harry giving a thumbs up to cameras outside the Royal Courts of Justice.
Prince Harry has won the battle and is ready for war.
EPA/Neil Hall

The ruling that there “can be no doubt” that Piers Morgan knew about phone hacking while he was editor at the Mirror (which Morgan denies) has probably emboldened the Prince for the next two contests against Associated News and News UK for alleged violations of privacy and unlawful information gathering.

Harry stated in an interview earlier this year that campaigning against the injustices of the press had become his life’s work. And, as media lawyer Persephone Bridgman Baker told Sky News: “We certainly haven’t seen the end of phone hacking [in the courts].”



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