Menu Close

UK phone hacking victims’ lawyer Charlotte Harris In Conversation: full transcript

UK lawyer Charlotte Harris, who represented phone hacking victims, said the police should have acted to protect the public. Photo © Mishcon de Reya; Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Rod Tiffen: Charlotte Harris, thanks for getting together with us. We’re doing this interview when Lord Leveson – the Leveson Inquiry’s been one of the most major inquiries ever held into media in the UK – when his report is expected within a matter of weeks. And the remit of the Leveson Inquiry was to examine the phone-hacking scandals that engulfed Rupert Murdoch’s News International, especially since July 2011.

But to me, there’s two astounding things about all this. First is the extent of the scandal: the scale of the phone hacking, the breaking into emails, the bribery of public officials and so forth that was routinely practised by the Murdoch tabloids. But the second astonishing thing is that the scandal almost never became a public scandal in a large and revealing way.

For a long time, News International’s cover-up, its stonewalling, looked as if it might succeed, because the first public evidence of the scandal was in January 2007 when a News of the World reporter Clive Goodman and a private investigator Glen Mulcaire were both sent to prison for having hacked into the phones of the royal princes.

And the News defence at that time was that this was just the work of a single rogue reporter. And it’s really four-and-a-half years - between January 2007 till July 2011 - before the scandal explodes.

Now, one important element in the cracking of these defences, especially when the police were so passive and uninterested, was the mounting of civil cases. In fact, these civil cases have probably played more of a role in this scandal than in most others. And you and your colleague Mark Lewis were centrally involved in this. So could you tell us how you came to be involved? What was the start of your involvement in this, in this whole saga?

Charlotte Harris: Originally, I was an associate at a firm in Manchester that looked after the Professional Footballers’ Association and so I did the Gordon Taylor case with Mark Lewis, but that’s the only time he’s ever been my colleague.

Rod Tiffen: Oh, OK.

Charlotte Harris: So I don’t work with Mark now. The second phone-hacking case, or the third if you count the princes, was Max Clifford, who is the publicist.

So Gordon Taylor’s case was settled in a secret settlement. And, as it happened, which was interesting, was that I wasn’t actually party to the settlement. That was something that Mark did and I wasn’t aware of the secret settlement because I was giving birth at the time. And I never went back to work with Mark after that.

But I did go on and do on my own the third case, which was Max Clifford’s case. And Max Clifford’s case was also settled, except the so-called secret settlement wasn’t secret for more than, I think, a day, which is quite interesting given Max. Max did us all a great favour actually. At the time, when I realised that the case (was being settled), I had a furious [argument] with Max and I said “What happens now? It might be the end.” And he said, “Don’t worry, poppet”.

And he was right and Max has really taught me things that nobody else could teach me. Anyway, the fact is that, you know, Max had started it and very soon, people heard that there had been this settlement for a lot of money.

Now, by then I was already looking after Sky Andrews, who was a sports agent. And, whether it’s right or whether it’s wrong, the fact is, the news of these huge damages paid out certainly attracted attention from potential claimants.

Now, one of these things came up in the Media, Culture and Sport Select Committee, where Tom Crone, who was the News International lawyer at the time, was asked: in relation to the Gordon Taylor settlement (which something like, allegedly, 425,000 pounds), why was he paid so much?

Now, we know now that this was a huge cover-up and that actually, this needed to shut them down. What Tom Crone said about it was [it was] a commercial value of how much damages this would have been worth.

Now, in the second tranche of litigation, claimants are being told that their hacking is worth something like 5000 pounds, 10,000 pounds. But Tom Crone wasn’t necessarily wrong when he said that. It’s very easy to say “Well, Tom Crone lied to the committee.” I don’t think he did. I think the commercial value of the cover-up, and the commercial value in terms of going and losing the case and the legal fees on the other side, possibly was as much as that. Because, certainly, now that we have hundreds of claimants, not only has the price of damages gone down, it’s become almost the exact opposite of what it was in the beginning.

Starting up working on the Gordon Taylor case and working on Max Clifford’s case and Sky Andrew’s – the front runners – and later Mark Thompson who is a lawyer at another law firm in the UK who has also been very central, somewhat of an unsung hero, I think. He did Sienna Miller’s case. And these cases were so difficult because you had to constantly go to court and say “Can we have this disclosure? Can we see these papers?” And the answer would always be “They don’t exist.” They were: “You’re barking up the wrong tree. They’ve been destroyed.”

Turned out, they did exist. People might have thought they were destroyed. But these things, you tend to be able to find. And slowly, slowly it all began to crumble. The pressure [was] put on the metropolitan police to explain themselves. Why on Earth hadn’t they, when the princes’ phones had originally been intercepted, why on Earth hadn’t they notified these victims?

Now, originally, in the princes’ case – so again, I’m way back in 2007 – we had been told that there were categories of victim. So, there were supermodels – that’s Elle – with the first one who was the example. The sports agent – that’s our Sky Andrews – who was very helpful later. Max Clifford, we know, was helpful. Gordon Taylor – the first one after the princes’ – and the MP Simon Hughes who took an action later on, once it had all got going.

Now, that was very misleading because those categories – MPs, sports agents, celebrity – missed out on what essentially became the 2011 big exposé, which was: victims of crime, ordinary people, and the families of victims of crime.

And when those categories were revealed, and it was those people who hadn’t been notified, whilst there had been some kind of public consumption for the press saying “Celebrities, you know, who cares about them? They put themselves in the public eye. MPs – public interest,” and all these other excuses. Not their own readers. Public, massive public outcry over Milly Dowler and that, it was really then, that the story came into the press.

Rod Tiffen: Really exploded.

Charlotte Harris: Yes.

Rod Tiffen: It was already breaking down.

Charlotte Harris: It was breaking down but I really agree with you that one of the most fascinating things about this is the cover-up. And it’s not just a cover-up by News International and this is not just an attack on Murdoch’s paper.

What was fascinating was the fact that the British press – the British press who had for so long said that it’s a free press and they should continue to be self-regulated because they exposed scandal – failed, systematically failed to expose their own scandal.

And it shone a light of hypocrisy on them and it was really that and the (Leveson) inquiry opening, and then once the inquiry opened, we started to find out a lot more – not just about the narrow criminality of phone-hacking but about the process of media and media efforts.

Rod Tiffen: Yeah, well I think that’s crucial. Can I take you back a little way to your involvement in these cases? I mean even celebrities are not necessarily non-human beings.

Charlotte Harris: I agree. I’m very pro-celebrities having private lives. I think that they form quite a lot of my clients. I only meant it in forms of perception.

Rod Tiffen: But the damage that News of The World and others did to them. At one level, it’s the exposure of their private lives – like they’re having a tiff with their boyfriend or whatever – but at the other level it seems to me is the impact on their personal relationships, about who can they trust. And you read again and again of people saying “I thought this friend of mine was betraying me,” or “I thought my secretary was betraying me” or whatever. And so it’s sort of set up this paranoia, which must have had very damaging consequences on their immediate circle of relationships. Did you see that at close hand?

Charlotte Harris: Yes, absolutely. And so it’s very Hitchcockian. It’s very gaslighting. It’s like going into somebody’s house and moving around the furniture and insisting it was always like that. And we see that with Mary Ellen Field’s case, where she was blamed for leaking information that turned out to have been, or we suspect, the subject of hacking – and I’m not a lawyer on that case. Mary Ellen Field is an Australian lady who used to be one of the assistants to Elle Macpherson.

Rod Tiffen: What shocked you as you got into these things? [You were] working with little prospect of overall success for some years. What were some of your biggest shocks?

Charlotte Harris: I spent a lot of the early years carrying a baby and pregnant. So part of my memory of the early – and I’m sure that lots of women will understand this because you remember what happened very clearly in the years you were pregnant and how pregnant you were – and I remember being close to bursting point, so very heavily pregnant with my second child, having been up all night with my first baby who was still in nappies and not yet one, and going for a disclosure exercise at the information commissioner’s place and sitting in a room full of the Operation Motorman stuff and it was absolutely teeming with it and looking through this evidence and realising the widespread use of private investigators by all of the media.

It was looking at all of this evidence and realising that there was this situation where private detectives had been used for years and years and that people knew about it and that nothing had been done. That’s in terms of things like blagging and finding out people’s ex-directory telephone numbers and all of this information. And there was another point where I started to get disclosure from the other side and it was clear that it was wider.

I think the point that is my big, big turning point with it was my client [who] is an actress, Leslie Ash. She is married to the ex-premier league footballer Lee Chapman.

Now, Leslie has gone on the television and she’d said “It is terrible that the metropolitan police will not give me my papers and I want to see.” So she was very brave and an early voice as well.

So we made our way down to the metropolitan police and we’d said we want to look for Leslie Ash’s name and also her married name, which is Leslie Chapman. Because that’s what her accounts may have been in.

And so they showed us these papers and Leslie and Lee and I are looking at them and the policeman said something along the lines of “You know, well this says Leslie Chapman, but you can see that it says Fulham, which is where they lived, but it doesn’t have a Fulham postcode.” And I looked at it and I said “It doesn’t say Fulham; it says Soham.”

Rod Tiffen: So this is actually, you made a very major contribution to the investigation here, didn’t you? Because you could read Glen Mulcaire’s writing.

Charlotte Harris: Well, what we were discussion earlier is the quite ironic and scary similarity between Glen Mulcaire’s handwriting and my handwriting.

Rod Tiffen: And the significance of the fact that the word was Soham…

Charlotte Harris: And Leslie Chapman happens to be the same name as the father of the murdered schoolgirl Jessica Chapman. And so suddenly…

Rod Tiffen: Which happened in Soham.

Charlotte Harris: Yeah, which happened in Soham, which was a terrible, terrible murder.

And when I saw that, I mean, you know, terribly shocking for my client, but it was then – and this in January, this was before the Milly Dowler story in March – and when I saw that, it all suddenly came crashing down that this wasn’t, as I up until then had thought it was, about those five categories but it was wider.

This is in January 2011. So I had worked all that time and not known that. And so I said to the policeman that he must tell Sue Akers (Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the British Metropolitan Police Service). And then I found it difficult to sleep for a while.

So I ended up making an appointment with Sue Akers myself. I wasn’t happy until I’d actually told her face-to-face myself. But, I think, and I know that this is a piece of information that’s been out there for some time -— that Tom Watson wrote about in Dial M for Murdoch,]( his book. But it was an important moment for me. But it didn’t actually; it didn’t actually come out until the Dowler’s had a very public campaign. But it shouldn’t take a public campaign by the parents of a murdered schoolgirl to make the police act, let alone the newspapers. I mean the police are meant to be protecting us.

Rod Tiffen: The fact that the complete immorality and cynicism of it was bought home by the affair, but this Soham -— what were their names? I’m sorry, the victims…

Charlotte Harris: Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells.

Rod Tiffen: Yes, and that really showed that it wasn’t a one-off.

Charlotte Harris: Yes, that’s when I knew. And I had a conversation with somebody at News of the World about it at the time.

It was around that time a little later that somebody gave me a package that had the material that showed that I’d been under surveillance. And again, it’s not something that I went to the press with, just like I wouldn’t have gone to the press with the Soham [issue] because I thought that that there were proper ways of getting it done and that was through telling News International, through telling the police. Now I accept that there has to be an element of campaigning and it took me a long time to get there because I just thought that they would do something about what was clearly lawbreaking. I thought that telling the police would be enough. Maybe that’s my naivete.

Rod Tiffen: So when we look at that period of four years until the beginning of 2011, what would you say about the performance of the police and perhaps about the prosecution service?

Charlotte Harris: Shocking. It shouldn’t have taken civil actions. I wrote letter after letter after letter to the police on behalf of my clients. Many of those clients now did turn out to be victims and I’d received the most ridiculous responses. For instance, on Leslie Ash… we said ‘Is there any information on Leslie Ash/Chapman because we suspect her phone was intercepted’ and the police wrote back and they said, ‘Well, there’s some bits of paper. They’ve got her numbers on it and her account number but you can’t see them and it doesn’t mean that she was hacked.’

And she had to go for a… disclosure order pre-action which cost her 18,000 pounds which, thankfully, she’s recovered.

But had it not been for, you know, Leslie Ash saying ‘Fine, I’ll pay the money, I’ll take the risk’, you’d have to pay for your own pre-action disclosures. It’s only once you take a case and win that you get the money back.

Rod Tiffen: She took a big risk.

Charlotte Harris: Yeah thank you, Leslie. It’s not a small amount of money. She shouldn’t have had to pay that. The police simply should have said, ‘This is what’s happened.’

Rod Tiffen: When you look back at the performance of the police over that period, which seems to me at various points quite mind-boggling, from the conviction of Mulcaire and Goodman on, it’s sort of, you know, they’re a part of the cover-up a lot of the time.

Charlotte Harris: Very much part of the cover-up. And if you ask them about it like I have done we were just told ‘Well, we’re drawing the line and we’re doing our own investigation.’ We haven’t heard much about the police internal investigation.

Because the police were meant to be protecting us. This is not to let the newspapers off the hook, they are currently an unregulated bunch, commercial, censored by their own proprietors, and that’s a free press. So my expectations of them are, you have to say, lower. I think that they have obligations, I really do, but the police - I’m upset about it.

Rod Tiffen: We don’t have definitive proof, but how would you explain police behaviour at that time.

Charlotte Harris: I think there was a long history of a relationship between the press, and maybe particularly News International, and the police in terms of leaking of information. I think it had all got terribly casual and out of hand. I think that the iron triangle that was the very powerful press, the Murdoch press, their relationship with Parliament, and their relationship with MPs, and then the relationship with the police, meant that somewhere there was formed a kind of strange institutional narcissism that made them feel that they were in some ways above the law.

Rod Tiffen: And a set of alliances.

Charlotte Harris: And these lofty sort of self-justifications that you hear are extraordinary. And so hypocritical and yet if you say they’re hypocritical nobody responds.

For instance, the whole thing about ‘If you believe in free press why didn’t you report on the scandal’. No response, ever. Nobody says anything to that. I have not heard one, in all these fights I’ve had with various journalists and editors. Not once has anybody come up with anything that is a reasonable response to that.

Rod Tiffen: One of the interesting things about all this is the role of lawyers and it seems to me it raises, especially on the other side, where does professional obligation finish and unscrupulous partisan promotion for your side start? I notice in particular that you were subjected, simply because you were a lawyer for some of these victims, to two periods of surveillance. At least one of these seems to have been on the direct recommendation of News International solicitors.

Charlotte Harris: Yeah, it’s a really strange one. I know that [News of the World lawyer] Julian Pike has said that he’d do it again, and he was certainly very cross, and has justified doing it.

But frankly, I’m on the other side of lawyers the whole time in cases, and the idea that I would go and order their children’s birth certificates, to have a look… I have to say that while I’ve been very robust about it, I am somewhat creeped out by the fact that these things were on order whilst I was writing what I thought were quite sensible letters.

I am uniquely equipped, and robust about these things, but having found about the surveillance in retrospect, having found out about it once the scandal had emerged, it was oddly reassuring because when you are told by the other side for years that you’re wrong, that you are barking up the wrong tree, that you are simply promoting yourself, and that this has got everything to do with celebrities – and then you find out, all within the space of a few weeks, that actually it’s not celebrities only, it is proper victims of crime, and their families, and murdered schoolchildren, and that you weren’t wrong, and that they did know about it, and that they put you under surveillance to see what they could find to stop you from doing it.

I’m kind of grateful for knowing about it because it did rather prove that I wasn’t barking up the wrong tree after all. I’m afraid that all of it was part of the behaviour. What you say about what happens in terms of lawyers, to be fair I’m a lawyer now, I mainly deal with claims although sometimes I represent the other side, and also I’ve been very interested in how the law has been developing.

But you have to make sure that you remain sensible and forensic and work on evidence so that you don’t end up pushing what you believe in too much, because lawyers have to base things on good, clear evidence. That means there can’t be any exaggeration. I think that some of the News International lawyers, I think they went a bit institutional with it. I think they became indoctrinated in the philosophy of their proprietor’s in the same way as journalists.

Rod Tiffen: It very much seems to be a News International style that, ‘Someone’s criticised us for this, we’ll discredit them by looking at their sex lives or whatever, and that will then make the criticism go away’. That seems to be almost their modus operandi.

Charlotte Harris: Yes, that you have to be absolutely top notch, pure. That’s why I would quite like it if I was writing these proposals, I’d make editors have a little ethics test. Maybe they could have a little certificate that they were a fair and proper person. We could put some cameras in there.

Rod Tiffen: Yeah, well good luck. It could create a few vacancies.

Charlotte Harris: It could do. That’s why I also worry about having these industry people on the self-regulated panel.

I mean which former industry people would they choose? Because a lot of them are in quite a lot of trouble.

Rod Tiffen: I just want to move now from the past to the present and the future. Before the scandal exploded, the interaction of several forces, the civil cases, parliament, journalists etc., all aided each other and produced a total cumulative effect.

But now I’m worried that there’s a chance that these different elements will get in each other’s way. I know, for example, Robert Jay [lead counsel at the Leveson Inquiry] had to really soft pedal his questioning of Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks because of the criminal things, so especially there’s a danger that there will be a prejudice of criminal trials.

I think we can expect that all these people have hired very good lawyers who will concentrate very much on procedural issues to avoid getting at the substance of it, and I’m now little worried we won’t get a good clear overview and a good set of criminal prosecutions emerging from it all. Do you think this is a fair worry or is it overblown?

Charlotte Harris: I think we’re going to be OK. I think that there was soft pedaling and it was for good reason. Apparently we’re going to have another trial for the second tranche of phone hacking victims in Spring. Whether we will or whether they’ll settle is a matter for speculation. I think that Robert Jay was very careful and for good reason, and that we have preserved a fair criminal trial… One of the things that has been a complaint of victims of the press is that they are given trial by media. And so we have to be patient and wait and hope that this time due process happens.

Rod Tiffen: Do you think the civil cases from now on will, in terms of their public importance, become less important? Do you think the moment for civil cases in this whole scandal is less?

Charlotte Harris: I think we’ve done our job. I think civil cases brought it out and now it’s a little bit personal injury-esque because we get our papers automatically. There’s still various fights to be had, but yeah, I think the next thing will be what happens to the police, what happens to those who have been accused? And what happens in terms of the outcome of Leveson. What will the press do next, whether they’re independently regulated or whether they continue to be self-regulated, how will they behave?

And in terms of what I will doing in two or three years time, I honestly can’t very easily quite know what I’ll be dealing with because even after all this I’m not sure which way its going to turn out.

I have an idea of what Justice Leveson is going to recommend but I’m not yet sure whether or not it will actually be implemented. I hope that it is but not necessarily. There may be yet be one more drink in the last chance saloon.

Rod Tiffen: It could well be that if you come back to Sydney in a year’s time this will all still be going on.

Charlotte Harris: Well, yes I’m having a great education here.

Rod Tiffen: Well, Charlotte, congratulations on your role in all this and thank you very much for talking to us today.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 185,700 academics and researchers from 4,983 institutions.

Register now