Phone hacking and other unlawful information gathering was “habitual and widespread from at least as early as 1994 onwards at both The Sun and The News of the World”, the High Court has heard.
Dozens of claimants suing News Group Newspapers say unlawful information gathering at the newspapers was “well-known to and approved of” by senior employees, including former chief executive Rebekah Brooks.
It is also alleged that senior executives, editorial staff and journalists “took deliberate steps to lie about, conceal and destroy evidence of these habitual and widespread practices in order to avoid the true nature, scale and extent of such activities being revealed”, with documents which revealed unlawful activities at The Sun allegedly being “purged”.
The now-defunct News of the World folded in 2011 after details emerged of extensive phone hacking at the newspaper.
NGN has since settled a number of claims brought by “actors, musicians, sportsmen, politicians, victims of crime and members of the armed forces” – but has never admitted any liability in relation to alleged phone hacking at The Sun.
The claimants also allege NGN has “knowingly lied to or misled” the High Court, the Leveson Inquiry, the former Press Complaints Commission and “the public generally” about its “involvement in and knowledge of allegations of voicemail interception, blagging, other unlawful information gathering and the use of private investigators”.
The allegations came to light at the latest preliminary hearing in the long-running litigation ahead of a full trial of claims against NGN which is due to begin in October.
However, it is not clear whether that trial will actually go ahead as a number of similar claims have been settled by NGN shortly before a final hearing: claims brought by Sir Elton John, Elizabeth Hurley and Heather Mills were settled the weekend before trial last February.
The High Court heard yesterday that there are 49 active claims against NGN and 83 further potential claims, with a further hearing in September listed to decide which ones will proceed to trial in October.
The claimants’ barrister David Sherborne asked Mr Justice Mann to extend the period for which claims of alleged unlawful information gathering can be brought against NGN from 1998-2010 to 1994-2011.
He argued that the recent disclosure of further evidence showed that NGN was “engaged in unlawful information gathering” both before 1998 and after 2010.
Sherborne added that “there is evidence that private, personal and/or confidential information” – including mobile phone data, medical data and banking data – was unlawfully obtained by private investigators acting “for or on behalf of NGN prior to 1998”.
Sherborne also referred to the claimants’ “generic particulars of concealment and destruction”, which allege that there was widespread use of “voicemail interception, blagging and/or other unlawful obtaining of private information” at The News and the World and The Sun over almost two decades.
He claimed that NGN “has deliberately destroyed computers and relevant or potentially relevant documents in relation to wrongdoing at both newspapers, including by deleting millions of emails”.
Sherborne added that “the first batch of millions of pre-January 2005 emails was deleted” on instructions from “senior” management, which he said was undertaken “only days after the letter of claim was received from Sienna Miller’s lawyers in September 2010 alleging widespread phone hacking” at the newspapers.
In written submissions, Clare Montgomery QC, representing NGN, argued that expanding the scope of potential claims would be “wholly disproportionate” and said the claimants’ application should be refused.
She said that the litigation has been going on for “approximately 12 years”, adding: “This litigation, and the allegations surrounding it, have been publicised to an extraordinary extent for the better part of a decade.”
Mr Justice Mann was due to continue hearing submissions today.