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£65k legal bill for reporter after failed bid to challenge lawyer's 'unlawful newsgathering' slur

An ex-News of the World journalist faces legal costs of up to £64,500 after failing in a High Court bid to challenge a claim that he had engaged the illegal services of a private investigator for stories.

Dennis Rice’s application to revoke or amend a witness statement made by lawyer Christopher Hutchings was rejected by a judge yesterday, who ruled it had been “totally without merit”.

Hutchings is a partner at law firm Hamlins, which is the lead solicitor in some 90 phone-hacking claims against News Group Newspapers, publisher of The Sun newspaper and the now-defunct News of the World.

The firm has access to unredacted copies of books kept by private investigator Steve Whittamore relating to the use of his services – both legal and illegal – by UK news publishers between 1995 and 2003.

The files were seized by the Information Commissioner’s Office as part of Operation Motorman in 2003 and led to Whittamore’s conviction for illegally obtaining and disclosing information two years later.

In his witness statement, made as part of Hamlins’ role co-ordinating phone-hacking claims against NGN in which Rice is not a party, Hutchings alleged the journalist had “engaged in unlawful information gathering” through Whittamore.

He alleged this happened while Rice was investigations editor at the Sunday Mirror from January 1996 to December 1997 and that he “presumably carried this on” when he joined the News of the World in January 1998 as a general news reporter.

Hutchings claimed to have established this after an “initial inspection” of the unredacted Operation Motorman files.

An article published by news website Byline in July last year included witness statements which named Rice as among 50 journalists allegedly involved in “unlawful information gathering”.

Rice strongly denies the claim, which was also reported by Byline, and sought to have Hutchings’ witness statement amended or revoked.

The court heard yesterday how Rice had used new data laws to obtain some redacted data held on him in the Motorman files from the ICO. This prompted him to pursue fresh legal action, despite having consented to withdraw a similar claim earlier on.

He said the only entries found against his full name include two county court judgment searches carried out while he was at the Sunday Mirror, and three electoral roll checks carried out while he was at the News of the World.

He said neither of these were illegal at the time they were carried out, prior to the Data Protection Act 1998 which came into force in 2000.

“I’m being described as acting unlawfully two or three years before there’s a law to break,” he told the court.

Further entries under “Rice”, with no first name given, were found in the documents, the court heard, but Rice said this was not him and claimed the recorded dates did not match up with his employment at either title.

The claimants dispute this and claim Rice has not seen the unredacted version of the Motorman files.

Rice also said it was the newsdesk and not reporters at News of the World who had dealt with Whittamore.

He said he had been told by a former News of the World news editor: “The newsdesk might have ordered searches [with Whittamore] in your name and your name would have gone down in the book.”

Rice said his application to the court was “the consequence of a lawyer looking at Operation Motorman and deciding that I’m a criminal with no viable evidence”.

The former reporter said the reporting of the claim that he had acted unlawfully had cost him business. He said he had to change the name of his company after six months without clients following the Byline article.

Rice said: “For me to be plucked out… of nowhere that I’m an unlawful information gatherer – I find it extraordinary and the fact that I can’t challenge that or have it corrected seems extraordinarily unfair.”

He added: “I would rather be in a position where I’m facing bankruptcy than have my family think I’m a criminal. That’s the only reason I’m making this application… I believe in the court system and in open justice.”

Judge Mr Justice Mann said Rice was seeking a full-scale libel action but that this was “completely inappropriate in an application of this nature”.

He said there was no legal precedent to what Rice was asking of the court.

Rice told Press Gazette after the ruling: “While I am extremely disappointed with the verdict I stand by the fact that any member of the public should have the right to challenge what is said about them by a lawyer if they believe it isn’t true.

“In this instance I spent ten months obtaining my Operation Motorman records, and showing they were all legal, innocent enquiries but the judge sided with the lawyer, and also decreed that because I wasn’t a main party in this litigation, there was no jurisdiction as regards the court finding it could order the striking out or amendment of this statement were I was mentioned.”

Separately, Rice is engaged in arbitration with Byline through press regulator Impress over its article, headlined: “Named: 50 ‘Murdoch’ journalists linked to ‘unlawful’ news-gathering, court hears.”

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