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Charlotte Church case could be the only phone hacking lawsuit to reach court

By | Published on Friday 10 February 2012

Charlotte Church

Oh, Charlotte Church, what a superstar. Of all the celebrities that have been pursuing civil actions against News International over allegations journalists or investigators working for the now defunct News Of The World illegally hacked into their voicemails, only Church’s case looks likely to go to court any time soon, after a barrage of out of court settlements were confirmed this week.

With the criminal investigation into phone hacking moving along at the speed of a number 73 bus on the Euston Road in rush hour, and the government’s Leveson Inquiry on the issue so widely defined it’s likely to achieve nothing, many have been hoping one of the civil actions in relation to the scandal would actually get a full court hearing.

But with News International handing there lawyers a multi-million pound pot of cash to buy off the litigious phone hacked celebrities and members of the public one by one (before the newspaper firm had even got round to admitting phone hacking was rife at its former Sunday tabloid), it seemed increasingly likely that the circumstances around the hacking scandal would never be exposed in the civil courts.

Even those c’lebs who insisted they were suing on a point of principle eventually took News International’s dirty cash. Perhaps believing that the criminal justice and political systems now had the scandal covered, since the whole thing blew up big time last July, and maybe nervous about the private lives they were trying so hard to protect being aired in court, not the mention the legal bills that would be run up in the short term, perhaps it’s understandable that even the more angry celebrities would take the easy way out.

But while a string of outstanding celebrity lawsuits were settled this week, legal reps for Charlotte Church and her parents have so far stood fast, and while that might be hardline negotiating tactics for a bigger pay out, you get the sense the Church family just want to see News International in court.

It’s unclear whether the damages any court hearing will deliver will exceed the sums of money the newspaper firm is paying out voluntarily – as some of those settlements have been in the hundreds of thousands, probably not – but a court hearing will likely further tarnish the reputation of News International and, more importantly, it’s parent company News Corp, the Murdoch family which control it, and all the news organisations within that empire.

Certainly News International’s lawyers, having no out of court settlement with the Church family, tried every argument they could this week to have a court hearing delayed, but judge Geoffrey Vos was having none of it, telling the defendants “we’re ready for trial”. Preliminary hearings should begin later this month.

Church is one of the surprisingly few music types to have been pulled into the phone hacking scandal, and to give evidence to the government’s Leveson Inquiry into press ethics, launched after the long simmering hacking story finally blew up last July, resulting in the dramatic closure of the tabloid at the heart of the scandal.

Church’s motivation to hit back at the tabloid press that first hailed her as a child star, and then relished in dishing the dirt on the Church family as her fame grew, is particularly admirable, her key concerns being a string of stories about her parents’ private lives that had a devastating effect on her mother’s mental health. The singer reckons no less than 33 such stories in the News Of The World were based on illegal newsgathering.

News International now has mere weeks to persuade the Church family to settle before the court proceedings begin. Assuming it does go to court, a story which has only involved the music community on the peripheries so far, will become very much a pop courts affair.

Church isn’t the only phone hacked celebrity still negotiating with News International. A handful of the first batch of phone hacking lawsuits are also yet to be settled, but technical issues mean they aren’t ready for court. Meanwhile a whole load of new lawsuits – 50 in recent weeks, including one from James Blunt – have been filed, as the Metropolitan Police slowly alert other individuals seemingly hacked by the News Of The World. Several hundred more people could as yet file legal proceedings.

The majority of those cases will likely be settled out of court, though the conclusion of the Church case – should it be heard in court – would become highly relevant. While high profile litigants are rumoured to have received pay offs of hundreds of thousands from News International – and it’s likely that’s the sort of sum being offered to Church – the majority of lawsuits are being settled for tens of thousands. But if Church was to get six figures from the courts, that could set a precedent that would potentially multiply the cost of settlements for NI by ten.

As we wait to see if the Church case is the one that finally brings this whole scandal to court, the Leveson Inquiry rumbles on with its all-star list of celebrities, editors and journalists giving evidence. CMU Business Editor Chris Cooke recently gave his take on the Inquiry so far on PR website esPResso at this URL.