A leading tabloid journalist has joined those suing the News of the World for allegedly hacking into voicemail, reviving claims that the Murdoch paper has been spying on its rivals in order to steal their stories.
According to the High Court registry, Fleet Street veteran Dennis Rice has issued proceedings against the News of the World and its private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire. Rice, who is now freelance, was the investigations editor at the Mail on Sunday when Mulcaire was at the peak of his activity in 2005/6.
One source who is familiar with Mulcaire’s activities claims that, acting on orders from an editorial executive at the News of the World, he intercepted voicemail messages from Rice and half-a-dozen other journalists at the Mail on Sunday. They say that, among other targets, the paper was keen to steal stories which Rice was filing from Germany where England were playing in the World Cup in the summer of 2006, generating tabloid interest in the players’ wives and girlfriends.
The same source also claims that by hacking into voicemail, Mulcaire obtained a password which would have allowed him to access the Mail on Sunday’s internal computer system, potentially disclosing all of their email traffic and every story that had been written and was awaiting publication.
Some journalists who have previously worked for the News of the World claim that they were also attempting to penetrate the security of the Sun, the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror, the Sunday Mirror and the Sunday People.
The claim is particularly sensitive. If proved, it could break the alliance of silence which has seen most Fleet Street papers refuse to investigate the scandal. Dennis Rice’s legal action is only the latest in a number of indications that the claim may be correct.
The original police inquiry in 2006 found evidence that Mulcaire had succeeded in intercepting the voicemail of the then editor of the Sun, Rebekah Brooks. The current police inquiry is believed to have discovered that Mulcaire also targeted the Sun’s former editor and then columnist, Kelvin McKenzie. Both would have been rich sources of intelligence about the Sun’s activities.
When he was tried in January 2007, Mulcaire admitted intercepting messages from the phone of the celebrity PR agent Max Clifford, who was then boycotting the News of the World and selling stories to their rivals. Clifford’s then personal assistant, Nicola Phillips, is currently suing Mulcaire and the News of the World for allegedly intercepting her messages.
As one apparent example, notes kept by Mulcaire suggest that his hacking of Ms Phillips’ voicemail allowed the theft in February 2006 of a story about an alleged affair between the actor Ralph Fiennes and a Romanian singer, Cornelia Crisan, which Ms Phillips had sold for a total of £35,000 in a joint deal with the Sunday Mirror and the Mail on Sunday but which nevertheless turned up in the News of the World.
Dennis Rice himself was at the centre of an earlier controversy, 12 years ago, when he was deputy news editor of the Sunday Mirror.
According to allegations made in the High Court in August 1999, Rice had been contacted by Neville Thurlbeck of the News of the World, who had asked to meet him in a pub in south London. Rice had been suspicious of the approach and gone to the meeting with a concealed tape-recorder which allegedly had recorded Thurlbeck offering him a weekly payment of £5,000 if he would give him the Sunday Mirror’s news list plus a bonus of £3,000 for any story from the list which made a front-page splash for the News of the World. Rice had rejected the offer and taken the tape-recording to his editor.
The Sunday Mirror then went to court seeking an injunction to order the News of the World to stop trying to bribe its staff. The News of the World denied that Thurlbeck had attempted to bribe Rice and claimed that the Sunday Mirror had approached one of its journalists in search of information. The case was settled out of court with the Sunday Mirror’s then editor, Colin Myler, publicly denouncing the News of the World and accusing them of lying. Myler now edits the News of the World.
That case followed two earlier embarrassing disclosures after Piers Morgan stopped editing the News of the World in 1995 and moved to the Daily Mirror. Soon afterwards, its sister papers, the Sunday Mirror and the Sunday People, both discovered that their news lists were being secretly sold to the News of the World, by a senior reporter on the Sunday Mirror and by a secretary on the Sunday People. Both papers said they had been aware that some of their supposedly exclusive stories had found their way into the News of the World.
Dennis Rice’s wife and his sister are also named in the High Court registry as claimaints, suggesting that their phones also may have been hacked. Rice’s solicitor, Mark Lewis of Taylor Hampton, said: “I can confirm that Dennis Rice has issued proceedings in relation to allegations that his voicemail were intercepted. We are currently awaiting a response from the News of the World.”