Phone Hacking

Phone-hacking revelations: The corruption of the Press Complaints Commission

New court documents reveal just how spectacularly the body tasked with regulating the newspapers failed to do its job

May 17, 2024
Image: Tina Weaver said she believed there had been no phone hacking at the Sunday Mirror, the newspaper she edited. A judge later found she was involved in it herself
Image: Tina Weaver said she believed there had been no phone hacking at the Sunday Mirror, the newspaper she edited. A judge later found she was involved in it herself

It is always a risk with any form of self-regulation that if one sector of a profession happens to be corrupt, it is highly likely that the corruption in some way may reach inside the regulator.

Consider, for example, the case of Tina Weaver. She was the long-serving editor of the Sunday Mirror and for some years was one of the seven editors who—together with ten lay members—made up the central body of the old Press Complaints Commission (PCC). While she occupied that role, the PCC, in 2009, produced a report on phone hacking which misstated so much of the truth that eventually the PCC formally withdrew it. Weaver was also, in the judgement of the High Court, a phone hacker.

In May 2015 Mr Justice Mann, in the first of two trials involving the Mirror Group and considering the period between 1999 and 2009, concluded that she clearly had knowledge of phone hacking, was herself involved in it and had given evidence to the Leveson inquiry into press standards that he described as “wrong”.

The judge recorded in particular evidence that Weaver had “popped in and out” of the room while her head of news was teaching a young reporter, Dan Evans, how to hack voicemail; had then helped to give Evans hundreds of mobile phone numbers to hack; directed his hacking; received his progress reports; and had been emailed data for which the only sensible inference was that it enabled her to “conduct some hacking activity herself.”

In the second Mirror Group trial, which took place last year and was brought by Prince Harry and others, Mr Justice Fancourt adopted the earlier trial’s conclusion about Weaver and then itemised further evidence that Weaver herself had made incriminating calls; personally commissioned a private investigator who had already been convicted of using criminal methods; and likely authorised payments—totalling £1,250—on a story involving Prince Harry to two investigators who allegedly specialised in illegal information gathering.

In spite of this, in November 2009, the PCC report on the Guardian’s first story about the hacking failed to include any of Weaver’s own personal experience of Fleet Street’s crime while supporting Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World, damning the Guardian and celebrating the role of the PCC “in adding value to the work of the legal system to help eliminate bad practice.” At the time, the Guardian said in a leader comment: “It is a complacent report, which will give ammunition to every sceptic who has ever accused the body of being a toothless watchdog.”

In January 2012, Weaver gave evidence at the Leveson inquiry which included statements—under oath—to the effect that the Mirror Group’s private investigators were “what I regard as search agents”, adding that “I am not personally involved in instructing them.” As to phone hacking, she asserted that she believed it hadn’t happened at the Sunday Mirror. At one point, she told the inquiry: “I find the PCC to be effective at upholding standards in the industry.” By then, the PCC had already withdrawn the hacking report that was produced during her time on the body.

In his 2015 judgement, Mr Justice Mann said: “In evidence given to the Leveson inquiry Ms Tina Weaver, then still editor of the Sunday Mirror, denied knowledge of phone hacking or even of gossip of it. I have already found that she was involved in it, and she clearly had knowledge of it in the evidence I have referred to, and in the light of those findings this evidence was wrong.”

In May 2012, the Mirror Group suddenly made Weaver redundant with immediate effect. In March 2013, she was arrested by detectives investigating hacking at the Mirror titles. In September 2014, the PCC finally closed. In December 2015, the director of public prosecutions said there was insufficient evidence to justify taking any further action against Weaver or any other Mirror suspects.

In the commission’s earlier report on hacking, published in May 2007, the background corruption led to a different kind of failing on the part of the PCC.

 In October 2006, following the arrest of private investigator Glenn Mulcaire for phone hacking two months earlier, detectives contacted the headquarters of Associated Newspapers to tell them that they had evidence that the News of the World had been hacking into the voicemail of senior journalists on the Mail on Sunday and possibly also into the electronic system that recorded the stories that were being produced for each week’s paper. According to internal police records, their first point of contact was “Paul Dacre, editor in chief”, although Dacre himself has always said that he does not recall this happening. A senior detective then provided the managing editor at the Mail on Sunday, John Wellington, with more detail, including the names of the five journalists whose voicemail had been illegally accessed. 

This was evidence of the most brazen commercial espionage and potentially theft by a rival newspaper. The record shows that the Mail titles chose not to publish a story about this—at that time, or ever. A spokesman for Associated Newspapers last week told Prospect: “The probability is that Associated was more concerned with dealing with the internal security issue than writing a story on the subject at a time when the hacking scandal was in its early stages and its implications were little understood. To imply that Mr Dacre censored such a story is laughable.”

Some six months later, in May 2007, the PCC produced its first report on phone hacking. Claiming that it had “conducted an investigation into the use of subterfuge by the British newspaper and magazine industry, with particular reference to phone message tapping”, that report accepted the News of the World’s false account of Mulcaire’s work. It did not record that the Mail on Sunday had been told that its journalists had been victims—a fact that evidently contradicted the account given by Rupert Murdoch’s company. 

At that time, Paul Dacre was one of the seven editors sitting on the board of the PCC. His spokesman last week said: “Mr Dacre categorically did NOT help produce the PCC’s Subterfuge Report which was prepared by the commission’s Executive and its Chairman, the late Sir Christopher Meyer. Mr Dacre was one of the 17 commissioners… who adjudicated on complaints.” 

In evidence to the Leveson inquiry, Dacre said it was a myth that the phone-hacking scandal meant that self-regulation did not work. “I think that’s very unfair. Yes, the PCC was naive, but its main mistake was failing to communicate the fact that phone hacking is blatantly illegal... The truth is the police should have investigated this crime properly and prosecuted the perpetrators.”

While Dacre was an editor-commissioner on the PCC, evidence of Fleet Street crime threatened to demand action from the body in other ways. In 2006, the Information Commissioner’s Office published two reports about a network of individuals who had been illegally extracting confidential information for the newspapers for years. Dacre’s Daily Mail was named as the most frequent user of the network. The information commissioner, Richard Thomas, later described in detail at the Leveson inquiry how he spent nearly three years trying to persuade the PCC to make a clear statement condemning the newspapers for commissioning this crime. He failed.

Meanwhile, Thomas attempted to persuade the government to change the law so that journalists who illegally intercepted information could face a prison sentence under the terms of the Data Protection Act. But the then prime minister, Gordon Brown, was persuaded to block the proposed change after being visited by a powerful delegation of senior journalists which included Dacre. The spokesman for Dacre last week said that the move to make breaches of the Data Protection Act punishable with a prison term could have had a chilling effect on investigative journalism: “This was of concern to virtually the whole newspaper industry, including Prospect’s current editor.” The editor of Prospect, Alan Rusbridger, was editor-in-chief of the Guardian from 1995–2015. 

At one point, the PCC told Thomas that if he wanted to change its rules, he must go to see its code committee, whose job was to define the moral boundaries of journalism. The chairman until 2008 was Les Hinton, the chief executive of the company that owned the News of the World and which was leading the way in Fleet Street crime. Later, when Hinton stepped down, he was replaced in this most sensitive role by Dacre. 

After Dacre stepped down as an editor-commissioner, his colleague Peter Wright stepped up. He had been the editor of the Mail on Sunday at the time that the police disclosed the News of the World’s espionage. Wright was still in post as an editor-commissioner when, in November 2009, the PCC published its second report on phone hacking, which criticised the Guardian investigation exposing the true scale of the Murdoch company’s crimes. Wright later explained that it had not occurred to him that the targeting of his own journalists was anything other than part of the series of offences committed by the News of the World’s royal correspondent and its private investigator, both of whom had already been convicted.

In the background, while the PCC was behaving in this way, the code committee included among its members Neil Wallis, editor of the People until 2003 and then deputy editor under Coulson at the News of the World.

Wallis was prosecuted for phone hacking but found by a jury to be not guilty. In last year’s judgement in Prince Harry’s case against the Mirror Group, Mr Justice Fancourt found that Wallis was among those who commissioned John Ross, a former detective who had likely provided “a substantial amount of unlawfully obtained information”; and Gavin Burrows, the majority of whose work for the Mirror group was found by the judge to have been unlawful, including the intercepting of live phone calls and the hacking of voicemail. Mr Justice Fancourt found that Wallis personally authorised a payment of £5,000 to Burrows for a “Prince Harry special.” The judge concluded that this was “highly likely to be invasive unlawful information-gathering of one kind or another.”

Also assisting the code committee to find its moral boundaries during these years of emerging corruption was Richard Wallace, who succeeded Piers Morgan as editor of the Daily Mirror in 2004.  

Mr Justice Fancourt cited a previous finding that Wallace was one of those found “to have been principally involved in conducting voicemail interception”; that he had himself commissioned a PI known to employ criminal methods; and that he was “involved” in blagging and probably voicemail hacking on a story about Prince Harry. In the earlier trial, Mr Justice Mann said that he accepted the evidence of hacker-journalist Dan Evans, who described hacking phones on behalf of Tina Weaver while sitting across a table from her partner, Richard Wallace. Like Weaver, Wallace lost his job without notice at the Mirror Group in May 2012. Last year he was appointed by Rebekah Brooks to be head of TV at News UK Broadcasting. 

 When the PCC folded in the wake of the hacking scandal, one figure who had had a very senior role there reflected privately that part of its problem had been the “cosy connections” which, he said, had seen senior Fleet Street figures taking PCC staff and members out for meals and inviting them to their homes.

The cosiness is suggested in an incident on 6th November 2009. The then director of the PCC, Stig Abell, sent the Murdoch company a pre-publication copy of its report into the Guardian’s opening story in the hacking affair. One of those who received it was Graham Dudman, the managing editor of the Sun, who recorded his delight in an email: “Lays into The Guardian with both barrels... Rushbridger [sic] is singled out for criticism... Nick Davies gets it in the neck... NoW are delighted... PCC braced for a shit-storm.” The cosiness comes out in a comment towards the end, in which Dudman records that the supposedly neutral PCC appears to have given the Murdoch titles extra time to prepare their coverage: “Guardian don’t know about it yet.” 

The PCC itself excused its failure in relation to its reports on phone hacking by blaming the Murdoch company for telling it lies. 

Since August 2013, Stig Abell has held a variety of roles in Murdoch-owned companies in the UK, including serving as managing editor of the Sun for nearly three years. 

Lord Justice Leveson recommended that the press should be given another chance to set up its own regulator but with the addition of an independent body which would from time to time check to make sure that it was operating without interference from government or newspapers—from corruption or cosiness or lies. The news groups who had been most involved in criminal activity were among those who set up a new regulator, Ipso. They have refused to be checked by the Press Recognition Panel that was created for this purpose in 2014, and the Panel has said that, applying the criteria recommended by Leveson, Ipso would not qualify as being independent. An alternative regulator, Impress, has been judged to be independent, but no national newspaper has joined it.

Prospect is regulated by Impress