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Did the Murdoch empire hack MPs for commercial ends?

What if Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper company didn’t just hack phones to get a scoop, but targeted elected politicians—right to the very top—in pursuit of its business ambitions?
May 1, 2024

One February afternoon in 2010, the Guardian published on its website a call from the Liberal Democrats’ home affairs spokesman, Chris Huhne, for a judicial inquiry into the phone-hacking scandal. This was part of a story that disclosed that the News of the World had hired four private investigators who had used unlawful methods when Andy Coulson—director of communications for Conservative leader David Cameron—was deputy editor and later editor of the newspaper.

On the following day, Fred Michel, a senior political lobbyist for NewsCorp—the Murdoch parent company in New York—emailed Colin Myler, the paper’s new editor, about the story. “Very damaging for Andy,” he wrote. “We need to get Chris Huhne.” Myler replied: “Totally.” 

And so it came to pass that on 20th June, the News of the World exposed Huhne for having an affair, with the result that his marriage ended and his credibility was damaged. To do this, the paper hired three private investigators who specialised in using unlawful methods to get access to confidential information and paid £2,600 to a former police officer, Derek Webb, who ran undercover surveillance on Huhne for a total of 11 days that June.

This was not ordinary journalism, even of the News of the World’s kind. That email from Michel, which was made public this year in the High Court, confirms what has often been feared but rarely proved: that the commercial side of the Murdoch news organisation would use its journalists to damage somebody for purely political reasons. Huhne was threatening Coulson, who was to be Murdoch’s man in Downing Street, so Huhne had to be “got”. If that involved using criminal methods, so be it.

Now something much bigger begins to emerge—a previously hidden side of the phone-hacking saga that may yet prove to be its most important revelation. Namely, signs that the Murdoch company was using criminal means to spy on the heart of democracy, targeting politicians of every rank, right up to the level of the government’s own law officer, Dominic Grieve, in 2010; and for five years—from 2005 to 2010—Gordon Brown, when he was chancellor of the Exchequer and then prime minister. 

A couple of years ago, when new information came his way, Huhne sued. Various court orders eventually allowed him to see a collection of the Murdoch company’s internal records about him—invoices for the private investigators who had targeted him, emails that referred to him and, above all, the record of calls that had been made over five years to his mobile phone from Murdoch HQ in east London. There were 222 of them—far more than he had ever received from Murdoch journalists, who would usually speak to press officers, not to him directly—and they were striking in three ways. First, 218 of them were made through “hub” numbers, which meant that there was no clue as to which individual was making the call; second, over and over again, the calls were brief—far too brief to be a journalist legitimately interviewing a politician; third, they were all coming from the Murdoch building, whereas if ever political journalists did call direct, they did so from their mobiles or from the press gallery in parliament. Huhne and his lawyers concluded that the overwhelming majority were attempts to hack into his voicemail.

In court, the Murdoch company has said that this conclusion is unreasonable, arguing that some of the calls will have been legitimate contacts by journalists, that some were brief because they were the receipt of text messages, that some had been double-counted, and that the arrests of Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire—the former royal correspondent for the News of the World and a private detective, respectively—had deterred phone hacking. In December last year, they paid six-figure damages to settle Huhne’s case.

That was just the beginning. The claimants have now deployed in court a summary of more than 1,500 other calls from the Murdoch building to the mobile phones of 16 other Lib Dem politicians—many of them made after May 2010, when the party formed the coalition government with Cameron’s Conservatives. All of these politicians agree that they had received nothing remotely like this number of legitimate calls from Murdoch journalists. Similar evidence is beginning to emerge about hundreds of other suspect calls to some MPs from other parties who have opposed Murdoch interests. As with the hub calls to Huhne, the Murdoch company says it is not reasonable to infer that these were hacks.

In documents submitted to the High Court, the claimants conclude that NewsCorp and Murdoch’s largest UK company, News International (NI), “sought to target Members of Parliament and other public figures who were perceived as a barrier to NewsCorp/NI through unlawful information gathering and intrusive surveillance, in order to achieve their commercial or political aims.” That is not simply an allegation of spying for stories; it’s an accusation of political and commercial espionage. 

The accusation appears to be borne out by the pattern of these suspect calls. There are clusters of hub calls at times when the News of the World and the Sun were trying to expose humiliating details of the private lives of MPs who were challenging them. Between 2005 and 2006, the mobile phones of five Lib Dem MPs received a total of 54 hub calls when they were dealing with their then leader Charles Kennedy’s problems with alcohol. There were at least 30 more during  the subsequent leadership election, which saw the exposure of the sex lives of two leading candidates, Simon Hughes and Mark Oaten, and suspect hub calls to the other two, Vince Cable and Menzies Campbell. 

More importantly, there are also clusters at times when the Murdoch companies had a clear vested interest in gathering political intelligence regardless of publishing stories—for example, during Murdoch’s hugely ambitious attempt, between 2010 and 2011, to buy all of satellite broadcaster BSkyB, and also during the fallout from the hacking saga itself.

The suggestion—which remains to be tested in court—is that this new evidence is revealing for the first time the fine detail of Rupert Murdoch’s associates using criminal methods to interfere with the decision-making of government. In relation to all these calls, the Murdoch company repeats its defence that it is not reasonable to assume that these are hacks, because other explanations are possible. 

All that is known about the apparent targeting of Gordon Brown is that between 2005, when he was chancellor, and then for three years when he was prime minister, from 2007 to 2010, somebody in the Murdoch building used a hub number to call his private mobile phone 24 times—that is, according to the call data that has been disclosed to claimants. On the face of it, since a figure of that seniority is well protected by press officers and special advisers, it is difficult to see those calls simply coming from journalists looking for help with stories.

Similarly, within days of Brown’s Labour government losing office after the May 2010 election, somebody in Murdoch HQ started using the hub number to reach the mobile phone of the new attorney general, Dominic Grieve. This continued sporadically over the next 12 months, while Grieve was overseeing the work of the director of public prosecutions, who was dealing directly with criminal evidence about the News of the World, and enforcing the Contempt of Court Act against the tabloids—including the Sun—for their reporting on the murder of architect Joanna Yeates.

© Alamy / Stock Photo Liberal Democrat Chris Huhne (inset) threatened Andy Coulson’s position—and that meant he had to be “got”, reports Davies © Alamy / Stock Photo

Extraordinary evidence is emerging which suggests that, when a few MPs were trying to investigate the phone-hacking scandal, somebody inside the Murdoch HQ was bold enough to hack the phones of those very same politicians. This seems to have started in July 2009, when Evan Harris, a Lib Dem, became the first MP to speak out after the Guardian began to expose the scandal. Harris tabled an urgent question in the House of Commons and, over the following two days, his mobile phone was accessed four times from the Murdoch hub. Over the following week or so, it happened three more times. 

It appears that this targeting of MPs continued over the following two years, specifically in terms of accessing the mobile phones of MPs on the media select committee—with an eye-catching blitz of suspect calls around the time when the committee summonsed Rupert and James Murdoch for questioning.

Call data discloses that, over the years, two particularly outspoken Labour members of the committee received hundreds of suspect hub calls on their mobile phones: 176 to Tom Watson and 162 to Paul Farrelly, both of whom also allege that their landlines were targeted. The claimant group say that there were also “inexplicable” calls from the hub to the mobile phones of three other Labour MPs who served on the committee (Gerry Sutcliffe, Alan Keen and Jim Sheridan, whose mobiles were accessed by a collective total of 88 hub calls); the one Lib Dem member during the hacking inquiry, Adrian Sanders (52 calls); and the only Plaid Cymru MP involved, Adam Price (23 calls). The Murdoch company rejects the suggestion that its employees “accessed” these phones, and states that there are numerous legitimate reasons for journalists to call politicians and lawyers. It says that the call data should not be read as necessarily suspicious.

There is no dispute that these calls came from inside the Murdoch building in east London. The claimants have told the court: “This activity was carried out to obtain confidential information about the private deliberations of the committee, and to attempt to obtain compromising information on its members to deter them.” The company denies that any of the hub calls can reasonably be interpreted as hacks. One of those who was apparently targeted—Sanders—has already settled his case, with the Murdoch company paying him substantial damages.

Court documents also reveal hub calls going to the mobile phone of the Conservative chairman of the committee, John Whittingdale. The implication of this is not clear. Whittingdale became chair of the media committee in July 2005. In the following month, his mobile phone received the first of 388 hub calls that continued for six years, all through the period when his committee was investigating subjects that affected the Murdoch company, including the hacking. However, unlike the other MPs whose phones were being called, Whittingdale had publicly supported Murdoch’s company, particularly Sky News, and was frequently in touch with senior figures. The NewsCorp lobbyist Fred Michel, for example, contacted him by phone call or text 431 times during a 22-month period of the committee’s work on phone hacking. 

There is an especially striking pattern of hub calls after the Guardian’s story about the hacking of missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler, which was published on 4th July 2011 and which led within a week to the collapse of the News of the World. Farrelly and others began to push for Rupert and James Murdoch to face questions from the committee. The Murdochs declined. On 14th July, at a committee meeting that was held behind closed doors, Farrelly formally moved a motion to summons the two men, to compel them to face questions. They then agreed to appear, on 19th July. Farrelly and others began intense talks about the questions to put to them. While this was happening, from 9th to 18th July, somebody in the Murdoch building accessed Farrelly’s mobile phone 15 times. 

Appearing before the committee on 19th July, Rupert Murdoch said he was “completely and deeply sorry” for the hacking and added that he would do everything in his power to prevent past wrongs from happening again. Over the following four days, while the committee was deciding whether to call James back to answer more questions, there were 14 more calls from the Murdoch hub number to Farrelly’s mobile phone and “a similar pattern of calls to the phones of other members of the select committee during this period”.

In his submission to the High Court, Farrelly described the targeting of MPs on the committee as “a cynical and outrageous attempt to subvert the legitimate process of Parliamentary scrutiny and, thereby, the functioning of our democratic institutions, for the Defendant’s financial, political and/or reputational gain.” 

In the background, the Murdoch papers had been ferociously attacking the committee, reaching a peak in February 2010 when it published a report that challenged the company’s claim that only one rogue reporter had been hacking. In response, the News of the World accused Farrelly and Watson of hijacking the committee to push their own political agenda, which was “based mainly on rehashed allegations of old cases made by the Left-wing Guardian newspaper… Times change and any illegal practices no longer apply, nor would they be tolerated.”

Court documents also disclose records of payments to private investigators who were tasked with gathering unspecified information about four members of the select committee. It was revealed in 2011 that while the committee was investigating the News of the World, the paper tried to stand up a potential story (now believed to be false) about Watson’s sex life. Documents reveal that, during the Labour party conference in September 2009, they “blagged” Brighton hotels—posing as someone else to obtain information—to find where he was staying, hired the former police officer Derek Webb (who spied on Chris Huhne) to tail him, and deployed a specialist who could then covertly record him.

This is not simply spying for stories; it’s an accusation of political and commercial espionage

According to the claimants: “These journalists were instructed to target Mr Watson by senior figures within NewsCorp/NI [News International] who were concerned about the exposure of [the Murdoch company’s] wrongdoing by Mr Watson MP, in his influential role as a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee… Given its importance, it is to be inferred that Ms Brooks, James Murdoch and/or Rupert Murdoch were the instigators of the instruction.” 

A witness statement by Watson adds an extra dimension, claiming that the Murdoch company interfered with the working of the committee by “seeking to improperly influence its composition”. In one court document, Watson describes the alleged surveillance of the committee as “a shocking and outrageous attack… on the proper functioning of democratic institutions”. 

In June 2010, a month after Cameron became prime minister in coalition with the Lib Dems, James Murdoch announced the biggest deal of his father’s career: the attempt by the US parent company of their UK newspapers, NewsCorp, to buy all of BSkyB (at the time NewsCorp owned 39 per cent of the satellite broadcaster). The government had the power to refer the bid to the market regulators. The Murdochs were keen to avoid that happening. The Conservative side of the coalition was already close to NewsCorp. It was the senior Lib Dems who potentially stood in the way of the deal. The call data tells the story.

There were two Lib Dem politicians in the middle of the action. Vince Cable was business secretary. It was he who had to decide whether to refer the bid to the regulators. Norman Lamb was chief political adviser to the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, right at the centre of power in the coalition. Both Cable and Lamb had already had their mobile phones targeted over the years by suspect hub calls from the Murdoch building. By 2011, there had been 383 to Cable’s mobile and 261 to Lamb’s, “the overwhelming majority of which” were attempts to intercept voicemail, according to the claimants—an unreasonable inference, according to the Murdoch lawyers. 

On 10th June, Fred Michel went to see Lamb to give him advance notice of the bid. Somebody in the Murdoch building used the hub number to dial into Cable’s mobile phone six times that day; and into Lamb’s phone five times on and around that day. The claimants have told the court: “NewsCorp used voicemail interception (and unlawful information-gathering) to obtain information about private and sensitive discussions that may have been being held between Mr Cable and his advisers.” 

The suspect calls continued sporadically over the following months. Two years later, the Leveson inquiry—established in the wake of the hacking scandal to examine the ethical framework for the press—published hundreds of text messages and emails between James Murdoch and Michel, who was working assiduously on the bid. Amid further signs of the Murdoch company using its journalists for political ends, there are moments in those messages when the company appears to have been suspiciously well informed.

© Shutterstock, Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo Gordon Brown is one of the most prominent politicians to have faced potential hacking. Evan Harris (inset), former Liberal Democrat, was the first to speak out © Shutterstock, Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo

On 15th June, Cable had a conference call with James Murdoch and Michel. Cable told Leveson that he gave no indication of his views. However, Michel was able to email Murdoch later that day with the encouraging news that Cable thought “there would not be a policy issue in this case”. And that was true: it was precisely what Cable’s officials were telling him in private at this time.

In September, when Rebekah Brooks saw damning revelations from the New York Times adding new evidence of Coulson’s involvement in crime, based on interviews with more than a dozen former reporters and editors at the News of the World, she emailed Michel: “What can we do. Such a stitch up.” Michel replied: “The key will be for prominent lib-dems like Clegg and Huhne to stay silent on it (and I think they will).” He added that later that day he was going to discuss the unfolding situation with the News of the World editor “Colin [Myler] and his team”. There was then a cluster of hub calls to Huhne’s phone over the following seven days.

Later that month, Cable obtained a specialist legal opinion that recommended he refer the BSkyB bid, contradicting the advice of his officials. Other media groups were campaigning to stop the bid. Cable hesitated and commissioned a second specialist legal opinion. 

On 8th October, Michel was able to report that “an adviser to Cable’s team on business issues” had told him that Cable was changing his mind and was thinking of referring the bid to Ofcom. There is no evidence of any such Cable adviser leaking to Michel, yet his report was correct in detecting Cable’s shifting view. Four days later, Michel warned that Cable was being influenced by Liberal peer Matthew Oakeshott, “who is a difficult character and hates lobbying (and doesn’t like our empire either…) and who Vince talks to more than 10 times/day”. It is not clear how Michel could have known that anything like that was true.

‘The key will be for prominent Lib Dems to stay silent on it (and I think they will)’

On 27th October, with anxiety rising in the Murdoch company, Michel had a second meeting with Lamb. In a note which Lamb wrote for himself later that day, he recorded that Michel had said that, thus far, the Murdoch titles had been sympathetic to the coalition government. “But if it goes the wrong way, he is worried about the implications. It was brazen: VC [Vince Cable] refers case to Ofcom—they turn nasty.” At the Leveson inquiry, Michel denied making any threat and said this meeting had been “very friendly and open”. At around this time, there were five more hub calls to Lamb’s mobile phone. 

On 4th November, after receiving a third specialist legal opinion, Cable announced that he was referring the bid to Ofcom. That day, somebody in the Murdoch building spent 46 seconds on Cable’s phone. On 19th November, the secretary of state for media, Jeremy Hunt, wrote to the prime minister to report that James Murdoch was “pretty furious” about the referral to Ofcom and warning that “we could end up in the wrong place in terms of media policy”.

On 10th December, two reporters from the Daily Telegraph posed as voters at Cable’s constituency surgery and tape-recorded him saying, “I have declared war on Mr Murdoch, and I think we’re going to win.” Since he was obliged by law to handle the bid in a “quasi-judicial” role, this was a damning remark. The Telegraph chose not to publish it, apparently because they regarded Cable as an ally in their campaign with other media groups to stop the bid and did not want him to lose responsibility for it.

However, a subsequent security inquiry suggests that Rebekah Brooks’s right-hand man, Will Lewis, who had previously edited the Telegraph, was able to obtain the recording with the help of a contact in the paper’s IT department and then to pass it to a friend, the journalist Robert Peston, who published it on his blog on 21st December. This was political poison for Cable. Within hours, Cameron told him that he must pass the job of handling the bid to Hunt. Hunt later told Leveson that he believed he had already told James Murdoch that he was broadly sympathetic to the bid. 

Between June, when the bid was launched, and December, there had—according to the call data—been 30 hub calls from the Murdoch building to Cable’s mobile and 16 to Lamb’s, for none of which they “can identify an innocent explanation,” the claimants’ lawyers have told the court. 

No evidence has emerged about Coulson’s role in the decision to choose Hunt to take over the bid. Call data disclosed in the High Court may underline the importance to the Murdoch company of Coulson’s presence at the heart of government. Between January 2010 and May 2011, the company’s chief executive, Brooks, used one of her mobile phones to make 158 calls and send 648 texts to him.

Despite Hunt’s broad support for the bid, a month later, in January 2011, he decided to seek further comment from Ofcom and the Office of Fair Trading. He planned to tell this to parliament on 25th January. On the preceding evening, Michel emailed James Murdoch: “Managed to get some infos on the plans for tomorrow (although absolutely illegal…!).” Michel later told Leveson that that was a bad joke. Leveson accepted that, but added that Michel’s message “does, put at its lowest, convey a sense that information was surreptitiously being provided.” It is not clear how Michel managed to obtain this information. A potentially lawful explanation, revealed by the Leveson inquiry, was that Michel had established a back channel into Hunt’s office, via Hunt’s special adviser, Adam Smith, with whom Michel exchanged hundreds of calls and texts.

When, months later, on 4th July, the Guardian’s report on the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone threw the bid into crisis, Michel was on 7th July able to provide a detailed account of private discussions between Hunt and Downing Street. Smith said it was possible but not probable that he was the source for this. Lord Justice Leveson later commented: “The rapid leak of confidential Government thinking to the parent company of the entity at the heart of the scandal is undeniably a matter of concern.”

It is important here to emphasise that, although the new evidence does indicate that the Murdoch company generally was using criminal methods to smear political opponents and to gather political intelligence, in the specific events surrounding the BSkyB bid this remains a matter of suspicion, not a certainty; and also that if, in fact, somebody in the company was doing this in order to help Michel, there is no clue that suggests he was aware of it.

Claimants from the political world who are now suing the Murdoch organisation will be alert to the possibility that the company may have used criminal methods for political purposes at other key moments, including the various times when Murdoch won bidding wars for TV sports rights; when regulators intervened after James Murdoch tried to buy a slice of ITV in November 2006; and during the tense negotiations when the May 2010 election delivered a hung parliament. At the moment, those remain questions in search of answers. 

 © Alamy Stock Photo / Getty Images Chain of command: Rupert Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks and NewsCorp lobbyist Fred Michel (inset) © Alamy Stock Photo / Getty Images

In the evidence that has emerged so far, there are few examples of Conservative politicians apparently being targeted. Apart from John Whittingdale during his time as chair of the media select committee, Dominic Grieve is the only other known Conservative target. 

By contrast, apart from the 16 Lib Dem politicians and the Labour and Plaid Cymru members of the select committee, there were those 24 hub calls to the mobile phone of Gordon Brown from 2005 to 2010. Court pleadings also reflect payments from the Murdoch company to private investigators looking for information about Brown and his wife, Sarah. Other apparent targets include Charlotte Harris, the solicitor representing Tom Watson when he was exposing the scandal, who had 79 hub calls to her phone, all clustered around the period in 2010 and 2011 when Watson was most active on the subject. Andy Burnham, who at that time served as a minister in the Labour government, had his mobile accessed 91 times from the hub number.

The Lib Dem MP Evan Harris was the first to sue the Murdoch company on the basis that they had hacked him in order to gather political intelligence rather than material for a story. He discovered that his phone was accessed on 384 occasions, not only when he was in parliament up until May 2010, but also when he was working for Hacked Off, the group campaigning for press reform. The company settled and paid him substantial damages.

Harris’s case disclosed call data on his political associates, some of whom lodged claims that in turn revealed more suspect calls. Some of the hub calls that have been revealed in this way were received by known victims of the hacking who had already settled cases with the Murdoch company. Apart from Chris Huhne, Adrian Sanders, the estate of Charles Kennedy and others who have settled political cases, others have now launched their own claims, including Cable, Lamb, Watson, Farrelly, Harris, Burnham, Peter Mandelson and the former Lib Dem leader Tim Farron. As their cases proceed, more evidence may be disclosed.

At this stage, it is not clear whether political surveillance was being carried out by journalists, or whether somebody else was separately hacking on behalf of the commercial side of NewsCorp or its UK subsidiaries. It is also unclear just how much of this political work was done. It is a matter of record that the journalist hackers in the Murdoch company routinely used cheap “burner” phones that could be bought for cash and then—theoretically—thrown away after illegal activity. So far, the only evidence for politically motivated hacking is the limited amount of data on hub calls from the Murdoch HQ which has been disclosed in court.


The response

A spokesperson for News Group Newspapers, a Murdoch company, said: 

“In 2011, an unreserved apology was made by NGN to victims of voicemail interception by the News of the World. Since then, NGN has been paying financial damages to those where either there has been wrongdoing (in the case of the News of the World) or for good commercial reasons in the case of allegations against the Sun where liability is not accepted. 

These proceedings have now been going on for over 15 years and NGN is seeking to bring them to a close. Between 2011–2015, a large-scale police investigation resulted in the trials of many individuals in the criminal courts. Corporate liability was also investigated at length and, in 2015, the Crown Prosecution Service concluded that there was no evidence to support charges against the company. 

The claimants have [now] 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. Lawyers for the claimants work with a group of former phone hackers and employ anti-press campaigners and activists who seek to use the compensation claims to make allegations in circumstances they are protected in doing so [sic] by open justice principles.

[The latest accusations] are irrelevant to the fair and just determination of claims.”


News Group Newspapers was given the opportunity to respond in more detail to Nick Davies’s reporting ahead of publication; instead it offered the short general statement above. Following the release of most of Davies’s articles, the company responded in a further statement, pasted below. The article was also amended on 22nd May 2024 to reflect further responses from NGN.

“The allegations in this series of articles are in large part contained in draft amendments to the Claimants’ case in their ongoing litigation against News Group Newspapers. The Claimants have applied to introduce these amendments into their pleaded case, but that application has not yet been decided by the Court.

As a result, NGN has not yet pleaded its response to those allegations. If the Claimants are granted permission to make these amendments, NGN will set out its response to them in its Defence to be served at a later date. 

This series of articles therefore is entirely one sided and misleading and should be viewed with considerable caution.”