Mirror phone-hacking court told: 'There was no higher journalistic purpose, MGN has - rightly - not taken any public interest point'

The High Court is facing an "unparallelled" task in deciding the amount of damages to be awarded in eight phone-hacking claims, a judge has heard.

Counsel David Sherborne told Mr Justice Mann in London today that the cases brought against Mirror Group Newspapers were "exceptional", compared to other privacy actions.

The illegality was long-running, conducted across all three titles in the organisation, included multiple journalists and carried out covertly with the destruction of evidence, which was largely, but not entirely, successful.

Sherborne said: "There was no higher journalistic purpose, MGN has – rightly – not taken any public interest point.

"This is not about freedom of the press. It is about the systematic gathering of private information for profit, using illegal means. It is this context in which damages fall to be assessed."

What the judge was being asked to do was "unparalleled", he said.

Mr Justice Mann has heard often emotional evidence of the impact of the hacking from ex-footballer Paul Gascoigne, TV executive Alan Yentob, actress Sadie Frost, soap stars Shane Richie, Shobna Gulati and Lucy Taggart, TV producer Robert Ashworth – who was married to actress Tracy Shaw – and flight attendant Lauren Alcorn, who had a relationship with football player Rio Ferdinand.

He must make findings on the extent of the wrongdoing and the appropriate compensation in each representative case, which will provide a framework for resolving similar actions in the pipeline.

Sherborne has described hacking as "rife" at all three of MGN's national titles – the Daily Mirror, the Sunday Mirror and the People – by mid-1999 at the latest.

Last month, Trinity Mirror, owner of the three titles, published a "sincere and unreserved" apology for the voicemail interception, saying it "was unlawful and should never have happened".

In a trading update, it said that the cost of resolving civil claims would be ''higher than previously envisaged'' and it was increasing the provision for dealing with them by £8m to £12m.

Its counsel, Matthew Nicklin QC, has repeated that apology, following an admission of liability last September, and its intention to pay "full, fair and proper" compensation.

Yesterday, in his closing speech, Sherborne said that all the witnesses who gave evidence were "doing their honest best to help the court" and the "rawness" of their emotions was self-evident and understandable.

Their damages should take into account their distress, loss of personal autonomy and the affront to their dignity, and also reflect any increased injury to feelings caused by the conduct of the litigation and the need for deterrence.

He questioned the tone and style of the cross-examination of some of the claimants and said it was inappropriate for MGN to have required Gascoigne, whose health issues were well-known, to be tendered for cross-examination at all.

"It was extremely difficult for Mr Gascoigne to come to court, and his courage in doing so led to MGN electing not to cross-examine him."

After a brief appearance in the witness box last week, during which he said that phone-hacking was linked to his alcoholism, Gascoigne was told he would not be cross-examined by Nicklin, and his evidence was going unchallenged.

Nicklin has told the judge: "Given the admission that Mr Gascoigne had been wronged by the defendant, any cross-examination risked making a bad situation worse.

"It is hoped that the court will recognise that the defendant's decision was well-intentioned and designed to avoid further suffering."

Sherborne added that another aggravating feature was the newspaper group's attitude to the claimants and whether it was consistent with the apologies offered.

"It is like applying a tiny Bandaid to a series of exceptionally raw wounds", he said.

He told the judge that, at the start of the trial when MGN should have been reporting the claims in full, the Daily Mirror published close-up photos of Gascoigne going into an off-licence with the heading "Is Gazza back on the booze?".

"It is aggravation because it shows precisely what the defendant's true conduct is, as opposed to them, on the surface, saying they are trying to pour oil on troubled waters – that is, they are truly sorry and contrite for the terrible intrusions into their private lives."

He added: "We say this gives you a true insight into what MGN's attitude is to these claimants as opposed to what is being said in very carefully crafted statements and letters."

The hearing was adjourned until Tuesday when Nicklin will make his closing speech.

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