by Brian Cathcart
The court hearings now under way in London on phone hacking by the Mirror newspapers are piling fresh embarrassment upon IPSO, the press industry’s sham self-regulator.
Though IPSO is desperate to promote itself as a new, fresh start for the industry, the civil hacking claims being heard by Mr Justice Mann provide a lurid reminder that the man at the top of the IPSO structure is deeply compromised.
That man is Paul Vickers, who was the legal director of Trinity Mirror during the years when phone hacking was, in the words of one journalist, a ‘bog-standard tool’ at the company’s major titles. Not only did he apparently fail to detect phone hacking, but he orchestrated the company’s stubborn denials for more than three years.
Yet Vickers is the chair of the Regulatory Finance Company (RFC), the body that owns and oversees the supposedly independent IPSO. It speaks volumes not just that he thinks he is a fit person to do this job, but that the blinkered little coterie of top press executives around him think so too.
His continued high-level involvement in press self-regulation is an insult to all victims of press abuse, but especially to those – and it is now alleged that there were a great many – whose privacy was trashed by Mirror hackers.
The trial, of which details are given here, is hearing claims by eight people against the publishers of the Mirror papers. These are “representative” of a whole load more in the legal system or waiting to be filed.
It is only the latest sign of the scandal catching up with the company in which Vickers was a leading light until last November. His own redundancy and the public apologies by Mirror titles last month, are others. Two of the company’s journalists have been convicted – after guilty pleas – of hacking and it is has been alleged in court hearings that as many as 41 separate journalist phone extensions were involved in suspicious calls to voicemails.
The 10-day hearing at the Rolls Building of the Royal Courts of Justice will no doubt tell us more.
Vickers himself is not accused of illegal behaviour but his record on hacking is remarkable. In August 2011, with the country outraged by the discovery that News of the World journalists hacked the phone of murdered teenager Milly Dowler, he was the man publicly charged with handling his company’s response.
A media lawyer of 30 years’ standing, he decided not to investigate the matter properly but instead simply to write to 43 editorial executives asking whether they had hacked phones or were aware of hacking. When they all wrote back and said no, he was content with that.
It was on this basis that he allowed the public, the Mirror readers and the company shareholders to be assured that the company had clean hands.
David Sherborne, the barrister representing the claimants at the current hearings, alleged to the court this week that senior Mirror company journalists gave the Leveson inquiry ‘deliberately crafted and disingenuous statements’ about what had gone on at the company.
And in June 2013 Vickers himself told MPs of the Commons media committee: ‘We have done huge investigations [my italics] and, to date, we have not found any proof that phone hacking took place.’
Since then the whole edifice has collapsed and Vickers has been dumped by Trinity Mirror as it tries to rebuild its reputation.
But he hasn’t been dumped by the people behind IPSO, the ‘self-regulator’ set up by the biggest newspaper corporations in defiance of the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry.
Vickers was one of the legal architects of IPSO, working behind the scenes in 2012-13 in the effort to subvert or evade the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry, and as recently as last month he appeared before the Lords Communications Committee as the spokesman on regulation for those newspapers behind IPSO
The message he delivered there was blunt. Commenting on statements by the IPSO chair, Sir Alan Moses, that he wanted far-reaching reform of the IPSO rules and procedures, Vickers replied: ‘So when Sir Alan says that he is going to put a red line through a whole load of things, he cannot do that.’
It was a vivid reminder that, although Moses may be the public face of IPSO, it is the RFC under the highly compromised Vickers that has the real power.
Moses betrayed his discomfort at the Vickers connection when he was asked about the RFC chair by MP Ben Bradshaw at the Commons Media Select Committee last week. He replied: “I can’t speak for him nor am I prepared to defend him. You must put those questions to him and he must be given an opportunity of answering. I really don’t think Mr Bradshaw you can use me as a punchball to bounce off your accusations against Mr Vickers. I didn’t appoint him, my credibility and the credibility of the organisation I chair will depend … on the achievement of the objectives we have set out.”
A final point: Vickers served for three years as a director of PressBof, the body that did for the discredited Press Complaints Commission what the RFC does for IPSO. In other words, he personifies the continuity between the old sham regulator and the new sham regulator.