Police were forced to take the practice of phone-hacking seriously because of legal actions such as that launched by actress Sienna Miller, the press standards inquiry was told today.
The actress, who has been given “core participant” status in the inquiry, launched a civil battle which became something of a catalyst for a series of claims made by numerous individuals against the News of the World, barrister David Sherborne, counsel for the family of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler and 48 other alleged victims of press intrusion told the inquiry.
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“It was individuals like Sienna Miller who were prepared to take on the News of the World, unlike those in Government or from other areas,” he said.
“And it was Sienna Miller and others’ actions which forced the phone-hacking scandal to be taken seriously by the police.”
While many of those targeted by the tabloid were celebrities, some were simply connected to high-profile figures, he said.
Others included individuals such as Sara Payne, whose eight-year-old daughter Sarah was murdered by paedophile Roy Whiting in West Sussex in 2000.
Payne, who worked closely with the News of the World to campaign for better child protection laws after her daughter’s death, was “devastated” to discover, following the newspaper’s closure, that her phone might have been hacked into on behalf of the disgraced tabloid.
“One of the cruellest twists to the whole story is the fact that one of the [newspaper’s] most prominent targets had also been one of its most prominent supporters,” Sherborne said.
The disclosure about the hacking came after the newspaper published, in its farewell edition, a letter from Payne thanking it for its support.
It was a “sickening postscript” and “perhaps a new low amongst a wealth of lows for a newspaper whose former glory has been so befouled by its cultural dependency, it seems, on dark arts which sadly give journalism and journalists a bad name”, Sherborne said.
Besides those in the public eye, others were targeted for their access to the rich and famous, Sherborne said, adding: “They were people whose crime was simply working for well-known people.”
He cited the cases of model Elle Macpherson’s former adviser, Mary-Ellen Field, and an individual referred to only as HSK to protect the identity of a famous figure with whom HSK began a relationship.
Macpherson blamed Field after damaging stories about her private life appeared in the press.
She was sent to a clinic in America because Macpherson believed her refusal to accept responsibility for the articles was sparked by personal issues, namely that she had to care for her disabled son and had “problems with alcohol”, Sherborne said, adding that despite being sent home from the clinic, Field “was in any event sacked by her employer”.
The whole of the British press was standing in the dock as Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry got under way, Sherborne told the hearing, adding that he wanted to highlight “systematic, flagrant and deeply entrenched” abuses over several years.
The charges ranged against newspapers included phone hacking, “blagging” private information through deception, blackmailing vulnerable or opportunistic people into breaking confidences about well-known people, intruding into the grief of crime victims, and hounding celebrities, their families and friends.
“We are here not just because of the shameful revelations which have come out of the hacking scandal, but also because there has been a serious breakdown of trust in the important relationship between the press and the public,” he said.
“It is the whole of the press, and in particular the tabloid section of it, which we say stands in the dock, at least metaphorically so – and certainly in the court of public opinion.”
The lawyer said certain British newspaper editors were “members of the ‘see no, speak no, hear no evil’ brigade” and accused them of “complacency” in relation to the problems in their industry.
He went on: “The press is a powerful body. They have a common interest in a self-serving agenda. Why wouldn’t they, after all?
“This is about survival and they have lobbied hard to try and push their agenda through the pages of their own highly-influential newspapers to influence politicians with the sole objective that there should be less rather than more restriction or regulation, and that if this was so journalism would be even better.”
The volume of calls made by Mulcaire or which came from “within News International” were part of a “routine plundering” of voicemails, he went on.
Robert Jay QC, counsel to the inquiry, had described the News of the World’s phone hacking activity as “a thriving cottage industry”, he said, adding: “The evidence demonstrates not so much a cottage industry, as Mr Jay called it, but rather an Industrial Revolution, a culture change, we say, away from proper old-fashioned journalistic activity.
“The police say in the 11,000 pages of Mr Mulcaire’s notebook it looks as if there is evidence of well over 2,000 tasks assigned to him in the four years to which the notebooks relate.
“That means potentially 500 plus stories each year from this single source which means, on such a calculation, that there were possibly 10 stories in each edition of the News of the World which were the product of phone hacking alone, even leaving aside the other dark arts practised by the newspaper.”
He recognised this was “speculation”, he said, but added: “There is other evidence which suggests higher figures.
“It is hard not to conclude that the very foundations of this most popular newspaper throughout these years were built on manifestly unholy and indefensible ground.
“And, if the newspaper was receiving such an endless stream of stories, and a significant number of journalists were involved, then it must surely raise questions about who knew what and at what level.”
Freedom of speech was “only one part of the equation” and had to be balanced against the right to respect for private life.
“The respect which is given to an individual’s privacy is as much a mark of a tolerant and mature society – as we like to believe ours is – as a free and forceful press,” Sherborne said.
He accepted it might be a different story in the case of people who “expose their entire life to the press and trade off that” – but examples of this were “few and far between”.
Sherborne cited the case of former Formula 1 boss Max Mosley, who won £60,000 in privacy damages at the High Court in 2008 over a News of the World story claiming he took part in a “Nazi orgy”.
The newspaper’s disclosures about Mosley’s sex life could not be removed from the public domain once they were aired, Sherborne said, adding: “Let’s be honest, who can look at him without thinking about what he chooses to do with other consenting adults in private?
“And then stop and ask yourself this: is this something you really feel you’re entitled to know about? Whatever your answer, you do know it. And once you know it, it’s too late.”
After the story appeared Mosley was faced with the choice of whether to “retreat and accept this humiliation” or to “prepare himself for a full-blown trial, with all the added embarrassment that this would cause”.
Sherborne said the former F1 boss – whose father was Oswald Mosley, former leader of the British Union of Fascists – would tell the Leveson Inquiry that the News of the World “preconceived” the Nazi angle for its story and tried to make the facts fit it.
A distinction had to be drawn between the public interest and matters that were of interest to the public, Mr Sherborne said.
He added: “I am not advocating boring newspapers. Don’t get me wrong, I like to read about gossip. Most people do.
“But just because I like to doesn’t mean that I should, or that newspapers should be able to invoke that curiosity, that prurient interest in such matters, to defeat an individual’s wish to maintain respect for the boundaries of their private life.”