Murdoch’s Latest Court Victory Is No Victory at All

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

The final phase in the game of chicken being played by lawyers acting for Prince Harry and those acting for Rupert Murdoch’s London tabloids is now underway, although its details are obscured by rival versions of what has now actually happened.

On Tuesday the judge overseeing the long drawn-out cases in which the Duke of Sussex and some forty other claimants are suing News Group Newspapers, NGN, as victims of prolonged hacking by the tabloids seemed to hand a significant victory to Murdoch. He ruled out an attempt to include Murdoch himself in a new raft of claims.

In his ruling, Mr Justice Fancourt said, “There is a desire on the part of some of those running the litigation on the claimants’ side to shoot at ‘trophy’ targets, whether those are political issues or high-profile individuals.”

New Claim Puts ‘WaPo’ Boss Will Lewis in Crosshairs of Murdoch Scandal

However, it took the judge 284 pages to explain in detail what he was willing to admit into the cases as new claims and what he was not.

And it was not until page 84 that he got to making it clear that, although the 93-year-old media titan himself should be spared further exposure, his top executives remain in the crosshairs, some for having condoned the hacking and others allegedly for purging all traces of it in emails, hard drives and documents after it was exposed.

“I cannot see,” wrote the judge, “what difference is made to the allegations of habitual and extensive unlawful actions on the part of senior executives, and concealment and destruction, by trying to pin actual knowledge on him personally”—meaning Murdoch.

But he then added: “Allegations against Mr Greenberg and Mr Lewis, who are senior executives and were appointed by and close to Mr Murdoch, are also in the claims already.”

Simon Greenberg was the director of corporate affairs and Will Lewis was general manager of the newspapers in 2011 when the alleged cover-up took place. Greenberg died in 2021. Lewis is now CEO and publisher of The Washington Post. And the judge did allow new details of Lewis’s alleged involvement in removing files from a laptop computer to be included in part of the updated lawsuit, details that I have previously reported.

(Spokespersons for Lewis have repeatedly refused to comment on the new allegations.)

WaPo Boss Was at Center of Murdoch Cover-Up, New Docs Claim

Lawyers for the claimants, including Prince Harry, sought to show that the new submissions struck down by the judge did not weaken their hand: “The claimants are pleased that the court has granted them permission to amend their case in relation to a number of significant issues vigorously opposed by NGN…The expanded case will now be determined at trial in January 2025.”

And that last sentence is, as far as anything can be, an escalation in the game of chicken being overseen by Prince Harry—a “see you in court” gamble based on an assumption that the last thing Murdoch himself and his lawyers want is to have him appear in court where his complicity in the scandal would be alleged in deep forensic detail and, indeed, the entire NGN leadership’s defense would be tested in public for the first time.

NGN has already avoided that by settling for a very large but undisclosed sum with the actor Hugh Grant, one of the most dogged of the original group of hacking victims. Grant capitulated only because he faced a risk peculiar to British civil law: if a court awarded a settlement that was a penny less than the settlement offered by NGN he would have to pay as much as ten million pounds in legal fees.

As his lawyers’ new statement says, Harry seems ready to test that risk by going right up to the wire of the January 2025 date in court.

Judge Fancourt’s ruling showed signs of litigation fatigue, something that the NGN lawyers have played to, alleging that the cases have been dragging on for far too long. The judge rejected the claimants’ attempt to include allegations of hacking before 1996 (which could have included Harry’s mother, Princess Diana, as a victim) and after 2011, saying that the amendments were filed too late.

New Washington Post Publisher Infuriated His Old News Corp Staff During Phone Hacking Crisis

Harry’s lawyers have, however, been able to strengthen their case with three successive waves of amendments, beginning in 2018 and ending with this last partly successful revision early this year.

They contended that the legitimacy of the claims should not be judged by how long ago the alleged crimes occurred but by when evidence of them was first discovered.

And it was during more than 200 new statements, made during discovery, that the extent of the alleged cover-up operation overtook in significance the already well-aired scale of the hacking (and blagging) that has left a lasting toxic mark on much of British popular journalism.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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