By Simon Thiel and Lindsay Fortado
July 13 (Bloomberg) -- On March 22, U.K. tabloid News of the World’s front-page headline screamed “MP has Sex Romp in Commons.” Inside was a photo of lawmaker Nigel Griffiths and a woman who wasn’t his wife in underwear and black stockings.
Griffiths, who acknowledged the story was true, is suing the tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., for obtaining the photos in an “extremely underhand way,” his lawyer David Price said. “My client had a sexual liaison in his office in Parliament, which he photographed, and which was on his computer, and somehow got into the News of the World.”
Politicians and celebrities may join Griffiths in taking legal action, saying U.K. tabloids go too far with news- gathering methods in their push to get exclusives and increase circulation. Potential claims might get a boost after the U.K.’s Information Commission, which oversees the media, on July 9 said 31 journalists at Murdoch’s tabloids, News of the World and Sun, acquired information through “blagging,” or underhand means.
The commission said it provided the information for a 2008 lawsuit, showing the practice was more widespread than thought in 2007, when News of the World reporter Clive Goodman and a private investigator Glenn Mulcaire were jailed for intercepting phone messages left for members of Prince Charles’ staff.
The commission’s statement followed a July 8 report in The Guardian alleging that News of the World, the U.K.’s best- selling Sunday newspaper, systematically used private detectives to hack into cell phones of public figures to obtain personal information. It said News Corp. paid more than 1 million pounds ($1.6 million) to settle lawsuits that claimed journalists got private investigators to illegally bug mobile phones.
News Corp. in an e-mailed statement July 10 denied allegations that News of the World journalists systematically accessed voicemails or employed private investigators to do so.
It said it settled in 2008 a complaint brought by Gordon Taylor, head of the Professional Footballers Association, after reporters on its News of the World newspaper gained information from voicemails. Aside from the Taylor settlement and 2006 Goodman-Mulcaire case, it said there’s no evidence other reporters hacked into phones or told private detectives to do so.
News Corp. spokeswoman Alice Macandrew said since February 2007, the company has worked with journalists to ensure full compliance with the relevant legislation and code of conduct.
“At the same time, we will not shirk from vigorously defending our right and proper role to expose wrongdoing in the public interest,” she said.
London police said July 9 they won’t reopen their probe following the Guardian report because “no additional evidence has come to light” since its investigation three years ago.
News Corp. executives will still face questions this week from a Parliamentary Committee, which said it plans to hold hearings on the issues raised by the Guardian.
The hearings may touch on the role of Andy Coulson, formerly deputy editor and then editor of the News of the World and now the press chief of David Cameron, leader of the U.K.’s opposition Conservative Party. He has denied any wrongdoing.
For Adrian Monck, head of the journalism department at City University in London, the attempt by tabloid journalists to obtain personal information illegally is no surprise.
“The intense competition between quite a few publications in a rather small market obviously increases the pressure to produce exclusive, newspaper-selling stories,” Monck said in a phone interview. “There’s a merciless fight for scoops and journalists sometimes overstep the boundaries.”
The U.K.’s eight national tabloids need scoops as they face sliding circulation amid free papers and online information.
“Big exclusive stories about well-known people have an enormous commercial value as they guarantee tabloids higher circulation,” said Max Clifford, a top U.K. publicist who has represented clients such as O.J. Simpson, David Beckham and Simon Cowell.
Murdoch journalists weren’t the only ones to use illegal means for obtaining scoops.
The Information Commission said in 2006 that illegal trade in confidential information is rampant in the tabloid world. It said 305 journalists were identified “as customers driving the illegal trade in confidential personal information.” Of those, 58 worked for the Daily Mail, 50 for the Sunday People, 45 for the Daily Mirror, 33 for the Mail on Sunday and 23 for the News of the World, it said. It also included four reporters from the Observer, the Guardian’s sister publication.
The Commission didn’t say how common this practice is at present. Even so, the Guardian report on the News of the World is prompting some celebrities to consider lawsuits.
Clifford is one of them. In 2005, the police and network operator O2 told him that his mobile phone had been tapped by Goodman and Mulcaire.
“At the time, the News of the World assured me and everybody else that it was just two people working off their own back, so I gave them the benefit of the doubt,” he said in a phone interview. “Now, it looks increasingly unlikely that this is the case. It was a horrible feeling to know that others had listened into my private conversations.”
Clifford, who has sued News Group for an unrelated issue, has yet to file a notice of claims on any phone-tapping.
Graham Shear, a media lawyer whose clients have included Jude Law, Daniel Craig and Pierce Brosnan said he has been contacted by clients from the film and television industry as well as a number of professional sportspeople.
“We will make the necessary inquiries of the public and private bodies, the police, the CPS and others, and ask them to disclose information about named individuals that they’re holding,” he said. “We will be requesting disclosure from different news organizations, and we will be considering different procedures, including Freedom of Information Act, Data Protection Act and pre-action disclosure, if necessary.”
Graham Atkins, a media lawyer whose clients have included Josh Hartnett and Kate Beckinsale, said he has “half a dozen or so celebrities or people of high-public profile” who are “looking” into the matter.
Elle Macpherson, whose phone hacking was revealed in the Guardian report, is “very concerned that her private conversations and those of other people may have been intruded upon,” her lawyer Michelle Lewiston said in an e-mailed statement. The supermodel is “confident in the ability and the determination” of the authorities to take appropriate action.
“This is not a new problem,” City University’s Monck said. “Journalists always have used all kinds of means to get secret information. A hundred years ago, journalists tried to intercept telegrams. Nowadays, they try to intercept phone calls and e-mails.”
News Corp., which also owns the Wall Street Journal and Fox television network, competes with Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News, in providing financial news and information.
To contact the reporter on this story: Simon Thiel in London at email@example.com.