Phone Hacking

How the Murdoch company ‘bought silence’ after phone hacking

Sacked former employees threatened to implicate senior executives—including Rebekah Brooks—in their criminal activity. Then, according to new court documents, they were paid off

May 08, 2024
Rebekah Brooks herself received a substantial payment—estimated at £10.8m—when she resigned in 2011. Image: Alamy
Rebekah Brooks herself received a substantial payment—estimated at £10.8m—when she resigned in 2011. Image: Alamy

Three of the senior journalists from the News of the World who were convicted of phone hacking and sacked by the paper were given “huge sums of money” by the Murdoch company after threatening to implicate senior executives—including reinstalled chief executive Rebekah Brooks—in their crimes, according to documents lodged in the High Court.

This includes a claim that Brooks knew about the hacking of the phone of the missing schoolgirl, Milly Dowler—something that she has always denied. Counsel for the claimants, David Sherborne, told the High Court: “We say Ms Brooks... was well aware of the Dowler story and the basis on which it was obtained.” In 2014, an Old Bailey jury found her not guilty of conspiring to hack voicemail.

The allegations emerged after the Murdoch company was ordered to disclose paperwork from cases for wrongful dismissal brought by three former news editors of the News of the World who had pleaded guilty to hacking: Ian Edmondson, who was sentenced to eight months; Neville Thurlbeck, who was sentenced to six months; and James Weatherup, who was given a suspended sentence. Claimants have set out several summaries of these employment cases in open court and in public pleadings, though the full text of the paperwork remains confidential.

Based on the case papers that they have been shown, the claimants say that the Murdoch company originally tried to strike out all three employment cases, on the grounds that the criminal convictions of the former journalists meant that their claims had no chance of succeeding. The three journalists then, the documents suggest, “amended their claims to allege that senior executives knew of and encouraged the unlawful activities for which they had been convicted”. As a result, say the claimants, the cases “were settled for huge sums of money… in the region of hundreds of thousands of pounds.”  

The settlement—which is said to have included “gagging clauses” to prevent the three men airing their allegations—was reached soon after Rebekah Brooks returned to her job as chief executive of the main UK Murdoch company in September 2015. 

In his amended claim, dated July 2015, Thurlbeck is said to have referred to Brooks and the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone (the Murdoch company insists Thurlbeck has never alleged that Brooks knew about the hacking of Dowler’s phone). At her trial in 2014, Brooks told the jury that she had not known about the hacking because she was on holiday in Dubai when it happened and so her deputy, Andy Coulson, was editing the paper. According to the claimants, Thurlbeck, who was news editor in March 2002 when Dowler was abducted, referred in his employment claim to “Ms Brooks’s regular contact with him and Mr Coulson as to the Dowler story even while she was in Dubai.” 

The Murdoch company also made substantial payments to Brooks herself when she resigned, estimated to be worth a total of £10.8m, as well as to Andy Coulson, Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire. 

Separately, prominent people suing the organisation—such as Gordon Taylor of the Professional Footballers’ Association and the celebrity publicist Max Clifford—were offered generous payments so long as they agreed to keep silent. 

Stuart Kuttner, the former managing editor of the News of the World, fared less well financially than his three co-defendants. Unlike them, Kuttner was cleared by the jury in June 2014, but he brought no case for wrongful dismissal, having resigned from the paper in 2009 for purely personal reasons. When he applied, after the big trial, to have legal costs of £130,000 reimbursed from public funds—as acquitted defendants can do—the trial judge, Mr Justice Saunders, turned him down. The judge said he was sure that Kuttner knew about the hacking of Dowler’s phone soon after it happened, delayed telling the police about a voicemail which appeared to disclose her whereabouts, and—in spite of his role as managing editor—“made no investigation to find out the extent of phone hacking at the News of the World” and “did nothing to ensure that it did not happen again.” 

News Group Newspapers responded after publication by emphasising that Ms Brooks was cleared after an extensive police investigation and an eight-month trial, during which she gave evidence for three weeks. They also point out that the judge in the trial of Stuart Kuttner—while making the reported remarks—accepted that Mr Kuttner had been found innocent.


News Group Newspapers—a Murdoch company—was given the opportunity to respond in detail to Nick Davies’s reporting ahead of publication; it offered a short general statement published elsewhere by Prospect. 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.”