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Ex-British officials say Murdoch tabloids hacked them to aid corporate agenda

Former Cabinet Minister Chris Huhne is among three former U.K. officials who allege the Murdochs' tabloids hacked into their voice mails to further a corporate agenda. In Huhne's case, revelations in Murdoch's papers led to scandal and a jail term.
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Former Cabinet Minister Chris Huhne is among three former U.K. officials who allege the Murdochs' tabloids hacked into their voice mails to further a corporate agenda. In Huhne's case, revelations in Murdoch's papers led to scandal and a jail term.

Updated December 5, 2023 at 8:26 AM ET

The Murdoch family's British tabloids hacked the voicemails of thousands of people in the U.K.: Crime victims. War dead. Politicians. Sports stars. Celebrities. All to generate headlines, sell papers and inspire clicks.

Controlling owner Rupert Murdoch has publicly apologized. His larger media empire — which includes Fox News, the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal — has paid out more than a billion dollars in handling the claims and legal fees since 2011.

Now, his British operations have paid again — this time to a former senior government official who says his voicemails were hacked not only for scandalous copy, but also as part of an effort to block the company's $15 billion takeover of a huge European broadcaster.

Three former senior company executives figure prominently in the allegations, including the current chief of Murdoch's British operations, a top aide to French President Emmanuel Macron, and the incoming publisher of the Washington Post.

"It was corporate espionage," says the former Cabinet minister, Chris Huhne, who was forced to resign in 2012 after a series of personal scandals that followed what he alleges is the hacking of his phone by people on behalf of Murdoch's tabloids News of the World and The Sun. "This is not about the tittle-tattle of celebrity hacking. This is about serious attempts to undermine the democratic process." He said Murdoch's tabloids were hunting for "kompromat" - compromising material - to taint him, and found it.

Huhne's attorneys and those for News UK, as Murdoch's British publishing arm is called, announced in court Tuesday that they have reached a settlement, said to be a "substantial six-figures damages" plus his full legal costs. Two other former Cabinet ministers, Vince Cable and Norman Lamb, have lawsuits that are currently scheduled to be tried in court in early 2025.

In a statement to NPR issued minutes after the settlement became public, News UK rejected Huhne's allegations of a corporate agenda, pointing to the coverage of scandals about the politician that ensued in its tabloid's pages.

"It is strongly denied that there was any corporate motive or direction to obtain information unlawfully," the statement read. "Huhne was a senior politician and stories published were legitimate and in the public interest."

In an earlier and more generic statement, the company cites its "unreserved apology" from 2011 and says it is paying financial damages to "those with proper claims." It calls this "the tail end of litigation" but says it is effectively saying enough to fresh claims, as "all of these matters are historical, dating back to a period between 1996 and 2012."

The officials only say they found they were the subject of hacking in the past two years.

Even so, News UK suggested some more settlements may be in the offing.

Lawsuits call Murdoch corporate culture into question

Huhne's allegations echo legal challenges that have roiled the Murdoch empire on this side of the Atlantic, calling into question the judgment, integrity and involvement of the company's foremost figures.

Earlier this year, Fox Corp. agreed to pay $787.5 million to settle a defamation suit filed by election technology company Dominion Voting Systems for repeated and baseless claims by Fox stars and guests that Dominion was involved in election fraud in 2020 to cheat then-President Donald Trump of victory.

According to CNBCand the Washington Post, Murdoch last week gave testimony under oath behind closed doors in a similar blockbuster case. The voting tech company Smartmatic is suing for the even gaudier sum of $2.7 billion.

Fox invokes a familiar defense of its statements broadcast about Smartmatic, saying the events being discussed on its shows were "extremely newsworthy," as it did in the Dominion case.

"Smartmatic's damages claims are implausible, disconnected from reality, and on its face intended to chill First Amendment freedoms," a statement from a network spokesperson says. Privately, Fox executives and attorneys have noted the case involves a new judge and a new jurisdiction — a New York state court in Manhattan.

"It's all of a piece," Huhne says of the legal challenges to the Murdoch companies in both countries. "This is a company that is out of control that is basically attempting to undermine the democratic process, and they need to be called out for it."

Rupert Murdoch stepped down last month from all formal roles in favor of his elder son, Lachlan. He still controls 43% of the voting shares, however.

Sky proves the limit for the Murdochs

The drama driving so much of the hacking scandal in Britain back in 2010 and 2011 — and revived now — involves a broadcasting giant called Sky. The Murdochs controlled 39% of Sky. For years, the elder Murdoch had wanted to acquire full control. British critics questioned whether the deal would allow Murdoch, who already owned four major national newspapers and a top book publisher, to consolidate too strong a grip on the media market.

The government in power was led by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, who had won the Murdochs' support, in a coalition with Liberal Democrats, known to be more skeptical. Cable was the business secretary, a Liberal Democrat who had what was called the "quasi-judicial role" of deciding whether to allow the Murdochs to acquire full control of Sky. (At the time, News UK was led as executive chairman by James Murdoch, Lachlan's younger brother. James has since left the company, taking issue with its editorial direction.)

Cable referred it to regulators to weigh concentration of market power. But it was up to him whether to allow the acquisition to proceed.

"It was a major storm," Cable says.

Taken together, the Huhne, Cable and Lamb suits suggest that senior News UK officials arranged for their voicemails to be hacked to learn of private, embarrassing and nationally sensitive information. That resulted in scandalous tabloid headlines that weakened the three. It also enabled the company to gain leverage over those in positions to oppose their takeover of Sky.

"If you're doing it just to settle commercial scores, that's worse than idly thinking, well, let's get a bit of nightclub gossip about Prince Harry or something of that sort," says David Hooper, one of Britain's most prominent media lawyers. "I think the more you dig in, the worse the conduct will seem."

Lamb's allegation is most direct: he alleges that Frédéric Michel, then the top lobbyist for News Corp. in Europe, twice threatened to use the tabloids to attack the Liberal Democrats in the ruling coalition if its leaders did not support News UK's quest for Sky.

A media lobbyist's "clear" message

Michel "implied that if the decision surrounding the bid did not fall in their favour, it would be a pity if things were to change and they were no longer able to report in such a positive way," Lamb wrote in a witness statement to a later judicial inquiry.

The message, he added, "was very clear."

Cable's decision was supposed to be aloof from political pressure. His lawyers wrote in court documents that he received 262 calls from Murdoch journalists, the vast majority of which, they wrote, are presumed to be fishing for access to his voicemails.

The judge overseeing the inquiry, Brian Leveson, termed Michel's efforts inappropriate, saying they were part of "a sustained behind the scenes lobbying campaign by News Corp, in support of its bid wholly to own [Sky]."

Michel, now the communications director for French President Emmanuel Macron, did not reply to phone and text messages seeking comment.

Minister loses power after leaked video

In Cable's case, he was taped by the Telegraph talking to two women whom he believed to be constituents in a private meeting at his office at which he said he had "declared war" on Murdoch; that video was leaked to the BBC, leading to a public rebuke. He was stripped of the power to adjudicate the Sky deal.

In court documents, Cable's attorneys allege that video may have been obtained unlawfully by News UK executive Will Lewis and former Telegraph IT staffer Jim Robinson and given to the BBC. Lewis was previously the top editor of the Telegraph and he hired Robinson to join News UK shortly after the incident. (Lewis, who has been named to be the next publisher of The Washington Post, did not respond to a request for comment through the Post.)

In addition, the Sun broke the news that Cable had had to pay a $500 fine for paying certain taxes late. The suit alleges that his accountant told him that information could only have come from tax authorities. In fact, he alleges, it was obtained unlawfully.

Cable testified to Leveson's inquiry that his colleagues "expressed some alarm about whether this whole affair was going to lead to retribution against the Liberal Democrats through [News Corp.'s] newspapers."

Cable, his lawsuit asserts, "was targeted over an extended period for no purpose other than purely to sell more newspapers for [News Corp.] and or for [News Corp.] to exert political influence."

The bid was referred to a more Murdoch-friendly Cabinet minister, Jeremy Hunt. But News UK withdrew it when outrage hit a fever pitch in 2011 over revelations that the News of the World had hacked into a dead schoolgirl's voicemails. Though the company sought to renew its efforts for the buyout, it was effectively dead. The Murdochs reached a deal to spin off its stake in Sky to Comcast in 2018 as part of a huge sale of other entertainment properties to Disney.

Newspaper scoops fuel fall from grace

Huhne represents an even starker fall from grace.

He says that News Corp. was "out to get me" because he had been a leading member of Parliament calling for a police investigation of the company as early as 2009 and for what became Leveson's judicial inquiry.

News of the World broke the news of the ambitious politician's affair with an aide. He broke off his marriage. His former wife, Vicky Pryce, would exact her revenge, giving the scoop to a columnist for an upscale Murdoch paper, the Sunday Times of London. She publicly revealed that she had taken responsibility years earlier for a speeding violation to save Huhne greater punishment on his license.

It represented, under British law, "perverting the course of justice." Huhne pleaded guilty; both he and his ex-wife were sentenced to jail terms.

Huhne cites emails among key personnel at key moments of its proposals in 2010 and 2011 to claim that News UK's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, and Lewis had stoked the targeting of the Liberal Democrat politicians. She was forced to resign in summer 2011, at the height of the furor and was brought back to lead News UK a year after she was found not guilty of related criminal chages.

Cable says phone records show he received more than 380 calls from Murdoch's tabloid journalists but that he had few actual conversations. Huhne similarly cites 222 such calls. Each man says they presume the "overwhelming majority" of the calls were part of efforts to break into their voicemail accounts.

Cable says he expects to reach a settlement with News UK as well.

Cable publicly apologized for what he framed as intemperate private remarks about Murdoch. In the interview with NPR, Huhne acknowledges his own behavior, once seen by light of day, drew interest and denunciation.

Huhne adds a warning.

"I have never claimed to be a saint, but my behavior had nothing to do with either illegal information gathering for corporate espionage, or a fishing expedition designed to intimidate or destroy elected officials," Huhne says. "This was not a journalistic exercise holding power to account. It was a proprietor using his media power to further his own interests."

He called for Scotland Yard to reopen an investigation, this time looking at News Corp.'s directors and executives rather than its journalistic ranks. Huhne also offered to help any cases against the Murdochs in the U.S. - including suits alleging failure to meet fiduciary responsibility by the leaders of Fox Corp. and Fox News for defaming Dominion.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.