4 Mar 2011

Phone hacking – PCC £20,000 libel payout

Home Affairs Correspondent

The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) and its chairman pay £20,000 in libel damages to one of the lawyers at the centre of the phone hacking scandal, reports Andy Davies.

The Press Complaints Commission and its chairman pay £20,000 in libel damages to one of the lawyers at the centre of the phone hacking scandal

It has been revealed in the High Court that the Press Complaints Commission and its chairman Baroness Buscombe paid £20,000 in libel damages to Mark Lewis, one of the lawyers at the centre of the phone hacking scandal.

The existence of a settlement, which was reached last November, had already been made public, but neither side – until today – had disclosed the amount paid. Details of the sum emerged in a related hearing at the High Court.

Today’s disclosure will only further embarrass the PCC – the body regulating standards in the press – and its chairman, who had already made a formal “statement of regret” in settling the action with Mr Lewis.

Mark Lewis is one of the most prominent lawyers involved in bringing claims against the News of the World over phone hacking allegations. It was Lewis who acted for Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association, when he sued the newspaper in 2008 over allegations that it had used a private investigator to intercept his voicemail messages. It was reported that Mr Taylor received £700,000 in damages.

This case relates to an appearance by Mark Lewis before the House of Commons’ Culture, Media and Sport Committee in September 2009. In evidence he stated that he had previously been told by a Metropolitan Police officer – Detective Sergeant Mark Maberly – that the phone hacking scandal may have involved “something like 6,000 people” as targets.

“It was not clear to me,” said Lewis to the committee, “whether that was 6,000 phones which had been hacked, or 6,000 people including the people who had left messages.”

Baroness Buscombe, however, subsequently gave a speech to the Society of Editors conference in which she said that the PCC had been told by the Met Police that Maberly had been “wrongly quoted” on the 6,000 figure. She went on to say that she was going to draw this to the attention of John Whittingdale MP, the chairman of the Culture Select Committee.

“Any suggestion that a parliamentary inquiry has been misled is of course an extremely serious matter,” she added.

Mark Lewis started a libel action against Baroness Buscome and the PCC, claiming that the clear implication of her speech was that he had lied about the conversation with the police officer. It was settled last November. He is also pursuing a claim against the Metropolitan police relating to the same issue.

Sunday Times denies hacking

Meanwhile, the Sunday Times has dismissed as “absolute nonsense”, a claim by the former Labour Deputy Prime Minister, Lord Prescott, that it is being investigated as part of the phone hacking inquiry

Lord Prescott – who has been told by Scotland Yard he is a potential hacking victim – told the House of Lords on Thursday that the inquiry now involved more newpapers than News of the World.

Lord Prescott said: “Is the Minister aware that the investigation into the Murdoch press on phone hacking has been extended now to The Sunday Times?

“So the argument that it was simply one paper and one ‘rogue reporter’ is no longer true. It’s a number of papers owned by the Murdoch press and a number of their employees who have been involved in withholding evidence and illegal practices.”

The Sunday Times is the News International stablemate of the News of the World, along with The Times and The Sun, which are all owned by the media mogul, Rupert Murdoch.

Reacting to Lord Prescott’s claims, Sunday Times managing editor Richard Caseby said: “It’s absolute nonsense.”

A senior reporter at The Times told Channel 4 News that it was also nonsense to suggest that the Times might have been involved in such activity.

Labour MP Tom Watson also alleged that Sunday Times journalists had hacked phones when he spoke in a Commons debate about the Government’s backing for proposals to spin off Sky News as part of Rupert Murdoch’s bid to take full control of BSkyB.

He told the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt: “I believe the evidence exists that shows journalists currently employed on the Times and Sunday Times were involved in phone hacking and that damaging revelations were printed in the Sun from information possibly collected by illegal hacking.

“We are told that the BBC have been bullied into delaying broadcasting an edition of Panorama that shows more sinister forms of illegal surveillance. If the Metropolitan Police show the Secretary of State this evidence, will he change his mind?”

Mr Hunt replied: “The issue of phone hacking is extremely serious. It’s very, very important; someone has been sent to prison for it. But it is a judicial process and it’s not one that it’s appropriate for me to involve myself in.”