Why did the Daily Mail’s legendarily foul mouthed editor Paul Dacre, along with Associated Newspapers’ editor emeritus Peter Wright and head of legal services Liz Hartley, decide to threaten a libel action against Byline Media? After the Letter Before Action was fired off, some industry watchers were left scratching their heads. Byline had their articles, on the Mail’s use of information obtained through mainly illegal blagging, thoroughly legalled.
In fact, the Byline exposés had been put to two independent lawyers before they were published. The evidence that the Mail, along with its Sunday sister title, had used the services of Steve Whittamore, who was busted by the Information Commissioner back in 2003 as part of Operation Motorman, after he was convicted, is not a matter of dispute. So why the attempt to silence Byline? We are now finding out.
There are three strands to the Mail’s probable thinking. One would be bad enough; all three together, which may come to pass, would be Very Bad News.
The first of these is Bad Timing: the ever-present threat that Part 2 of the Leveson Inquiry will be commenced. The press establishment, its apologists, and their hangers-on, are working furiously behind the scenes to head off the prospect. Campaigning groups such as Hacked Off, Avaaz and 38 Degrees are arrayed against them.
Mention me again and I'll f***ing sue you, c***
Why would Leveson Part 2 be A Bad Thing? It would examine the interaction between the press and Police, and most likely unearth significant improper behaviour, even corrupt behaviour. Were this to engulf the Mail, the reputational damage would be immense. For Dacre, his legacy would be in tatters. Of course, the Mail could emerge from Leveson 2 with its reputation intact - but then another problem for the press enters.
The second problem is that it isn’t just about the Mail: Byline has now moved on to an exposé on the Murdoch Sun. This, as with the Mail exposés, is on the subject of blagging, and this time it’s not only illegal, but barrel-scraping - even for the Sun.
All you need to know is contained in the opening paragraph of the Byline article: “THE SUN newspaper ordered specialist data ‘blaggers’ to target every leading bone and intestinal cancer specialist in London in an attempt to obtain the confidential medical information of a seriously ill woman, the High Court has heard”.
It gets worse: the hack who sent the Sun’s head of news Chris Pharo the email that contained the snippet “Blaggers (are) now attempting manual trawl of all top London specialists in bone cancer and intestinal cancers in the hope that we get lucky but will take time” was none other than Nick Parker. He’s still at the Sun.
Yet worse is that Parker was effectively welcomed back to the Baby Shard bunker as Sun chief reporter, despite being handed a suspended sentence recently for handling the stolen phone of Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh - even though the Murdoch empire supposedly has a zero tolerance policy on such matters.
Back at the News UK helm
So the Murdoch mafiosi cannot merely wash their hands of him and his actions. Moreover, Pharo appears to have been relaxed about what Parker told him.
Worse still is the possibility that there is more blagging waiting to be uncovered at both the Mail and Sun - and at other titles. It is a possibility that could be conveniently dispelled by mounting a costly and debilitating legal action against those publishing the exposés.
OK Rupe, two fit and proper tests
And what of the third problem for the Mail, and also, it seems, the Sun? It isn’t just about blagging. Not that blagging is some kind of minor misdemeanour, it has to be stressed: this is the way in which the press finds out about a target’s medical records, credit history, bank account details, property interests, Police records, who they know, who they call, who calls them, where they travel, where they socialise and who with.
It’s nasty, it’s intrusive, it’s illegal, and there’s no sign the press has got round to kicking this particular habit just yet. This, too, contributes to the Mail’s nervousness.
So if it’s not just about blagging, what else is it about? Ah well. Remember phone hacking? The illegal practice that allegedly only infected the late and not at all lamented Murdoch Screws? That turned out to have been used by the Mirror titles as well? Yes, that phone hacking. Which, it is now alleged, was also rife at the Sun [there is, as yet, no claim that the Mail titles indulged in phone hacking].
Byline have touched on this latest development, but this is now out there and circulating among the mainstream media, well, the BBC, at least.
And HE might come back into play
Here’s what they have reported: “Sir Elton John and Gordon Ramsay are taking action against the publisher of the Sun and defunct News of the World over phone-hacking claims … The singer and celebrity chef are among 63 alleged victims to have issued a bid for compensation at the High Court … News Group Newspapers already faced claims from 28 people who also allege their voicemails were intercepted”.
And the name of the paper? “More than 1,000 people have already settled with the company, which denies the practice took place at the Sun … The latest claims include stories published by the Sun, after a High Court judge ruled in April 2016 there was enough evidence for claims against the paper to be heard”. The Sun.
That’s the Sun which at the time was edited by the twinkle-toed yet domestically combative Rebekah Brooks - recently reinstated as CEO of News UK. So, as with Nick Parker, the Murdoch goons can’t just wave it away.
There is also, as I covered yesterday, the small problem of Rupert Murdoch and his sons’ ability to pass a “fit and proper” persons test when it comes to the proposed takeover of Sky, especially after the current ruckus at Fox News in the USA.
Why did the Mail threaten Byline? It wasn’t just about the Mail. It wasn’t just about blagging. And the fear of Leveson 2 is ever present. The last thing the remaining big and powerful players in the press firmament need right now is for the public to realise just how bad their past behaviour has really been. Better to just silence the dissenters instead.
Whether that attempt to silence dissenters will work, though, is now in serious doubt.