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Rupert Murdoch ‘turned a blind eye’ to phone hacking at NGN, High Court told

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch “turned a blind eye” to allegations of phone hacking at the publisher of the defunct News Of The World, the High Court has been told.

Barristers for individuals suing News Group Newspapers (NGN), including the Duke of Sussex, have claimed that Mr Murdoch and other senior company figures made “dishonest” statements over the extent of phone hacking at the paper, which shut down in 2011.

The 45 individuals allege that the NGN’s publications, the News Of The World and The Sun, unlawfully gathered information including through private investigators, with a trial due to be held in January next year.

At a hearing at the High Court on Wednesday, the individuals’ lawyers asked to update parts of their case following the release of further information.

NGN is resisting the application, with its lawyers saying the proposed changes are “wholly unnecessary” and “positively undesirable”.

In court documents, barrister David Sherborne, for the individuals, claimed that it should be “inferred from his dominant position” in the company that Mr Murdoch would have known about phones being hacked as early as 2004 and “was aware of the nature and extent of NGN’s wrongdoing” when allegations were first published by the Guardian in 2009.

David Sherborne is representing several individuals in legal action against NGN (Jordan Pettitt/PA)
David Sherborne is representing several individuals in legal action against NGN (Jordan Pettitt/PA)

The News Of The World was shut down in July 2011 after widespread allegations of phone hacking, with NGN since settling many claims with high-profile figures.

Mr Murdoch was executive chairman of News Corp and director of NGN’s parent company and News Corp’s subsidiary, News International, now News UK, at the time the paper closed.

Mr Sherborne said that the individuals bringing legal action “will seek the inference” that after the allegations were published, Mr Murdoch knew a public denial published by News Corp was false “or at the very least turned a blind eye to its veracity and that of the allegations”.

There are also multiple allegations made about the involvement of senior NGN executives, including former NGN chief executive Rebekah Brooks and former News International general manager Will Lewis.

This includes claims that NGN “systematically deleted” millions of emails from 2007 to 2011 and that Mr Murdoch and other senior executives were “buying the silence of those who might tell the truth about senior executive knowledge and encouragement of, and involvement in, voicemail interception and other unlawful activities” to avoid further police investigations.

The court in London was also told that NGN knew that unlawful activity was continuing during the Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking.

This included NGN allegedly using private investigators against the then-Liberal Democrat MP, Sir Vince Cable, and actor Hugh Grant, who were giving evidence to the inquiry.

Mr Sherborne later claimed in written submissions that Sir Vince, former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and fellow Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb, were also the subject of unlawful information gathering and News Corp allegedly felt they were “hostile” to the company’s bid to buy remaining shares in BSkyB.

The barrister said Mr Murdoch oversaw a “culture of impunity” at the publisher, which remained “wholly unchastened” by police investigations.

Mr Sherborne continued: “NGN has actively sought to conceal evidence of the true nature, scale and extent of these unlawful activities at both The News Of The World and The Sun.”

Lawyers for the publisher told the court on Wednesday that Mr Murdoch was previously referred to “purely in passing” and “no allegations are made against him in the current form”.

Anthony Hudson KC, representing NGN, said: “There is no proper basis for suggesting that that could not have been pleaded a long time ago.

“There should be a serious audit of these pleadings.

“This amendment is not appropriate.”

In written submissions, Mr Hudson claimed that “a number of very wide-ranging and serious allegations” had been “made entirely in the abstract”, which he suggested were “designed to grab headlines” rather than progress the individuals’ claims.

He continued: “They appear to be designed to precipitate a politically-fuelled quasi-public inquiry, and not to assist the court with its actual function of determining, in individual claims, whether there has been misuse of private information and, if so, how much compensation should be paid.”

A spokesperson for NGN said it had made an “unreserved apology” in 2011 to victims of phone hacking at the News Of The World and has since been paying damages to those who were the victims of wrongdoing.

They said that it had also paid damages in cases against The Sun where there were “good commercial reasons”, without accepting liability.

On Wednesday, a spokesperson added: “Today the claimants have sought to introduce accusations to the civil court against many current and former journalists, staff and senior executives of News International in a scurrilous and cynical attack on their integrity.

“Some of these allegations date back to events now 30 years old and relate to allegations which are irrelevant to the matters which are now in issue between the parties. Many of these have been investigated in depth on previous occasions.

“These allegations have nothing to do with seeking compensation for victims of phone hacking or unlawful information gathering and should be viewed with considerable caution not only in relation to their veracity but also in the light of those who are behind them.”

They continued: “The attempt to add the amendments now has nothing to do with seeking compensation for victims of phone hacking or unlawful information gathering.

“They are irrelevant to the fair and just determination of claims.”

Mr Justice Fancourt previously ruled that Harry could not bring a claim in relation to phone hacking against NGN and that he could not rely on an alleged “secret agreement” between the royal family and senior executives working for Mr Murdoch.

The hearing is due to conclude on Friday, with the same judge expected to rule on whether the claims can be updated at a later date.