LONDON (AP) — A London court on Friday rejected an attempt by the publisher of The Sun tabloid to throw out a lawsuit by actor Hugh Grant alleging that journalists and investigators it hired illegally snooped on him.
Justice Timothy Fancourt said a trial will have to determine whether Rupert Murdoch's News Group Newspapers carried out unlawful information gathering that included tapping Grant's home phone, bugging his car and breaking into his home.
“If true — which will be a matter for the trial due to take place in January 2024 — these allegations would establish very serious, deliberate wrongdoing at NGN, conducted on an institutional basis on a huge scale,” Fancourt wrote. “Of particular relevance ..., they would also establish a concerted effort to conceal the wrongdoing by hiding and destroying relevant documentary evidence, repeated public denials, lies to regulators and authorities, and unwarranted threats to those who dared to make allegations or notify intended claims against The Sun.”
During a hearing last month, News Group argued that claims of unlawful information gathering by Grant and Prince Harry should be thrown out because they weren't brought within a six-year time limit.
The ruling didn’t address the Duke of Sussex’s case because the judge wants to hear more at a hearing in July about Harry’s allegations that he was prevented from bringing his phone hacking claims much sooner because of a “secret agreement” between Buckingham Palace and News Group executives.
The judge dismissed Grant's phone hacking claims on time limitation grounds, saying the actor, who has played a key role in the Hacked Off press reform group, was well aware of the voicemail interception scandal and could have brought such a claim much sooner.
Grant previously settled a phone hacking case with News Group's former publication News of the World. That paper was closed in 2011 at the height of the hacking scandal after it was revealed that the tabloid had intercepted voicemails of a murdered girl, in addition to those of celebrities, athletes, politicians and members of the royal family.
News Group has asserted no unlawful information gathering occurred at The Sun.
But the judge said the case could proceed on other allegations the actor said he only became aware of in 2021 after private investigator Gavin Burrows began disclosing alleged acts of phone tapping, bugging and burglary on behalf of the paper.
“In addition to hacking my phone and tapping my landline, (Burrows) was aware that my premises had been burgled by people working for The Sun and that a tracking device had been placed in my car,” Grant said in a witness statement. “I found this astonishing.”
Grant said he could never piece together who had broken into his fourth-floor apartment in 2011. The door had been pried off its hinges and the interior looked like there had been a fight but nothing was missing. Two days later, The Sun had a story detailing the interior and “signs of a domestic row.”
Prince Harry alleged last month that the royal family had agreed to settle their cases with News Group out of court after phone hacking litigation against News of the World had wrapped up. He said the deal — allegedly agreed to by his grandmother, the late Queen Elizabeth II — was intended to keep the royals from testifying in court. He said the deal called for an apology.
In court papers, Harry said he brought his lawsuit in 2019 — against the wishes of his father, now King Charles III — when he became frustrated the settlement wasn't happening. He said his brother, Prince William, heir to the throne, subsequently received a “huge” settlement over phone hacking allegations against News Group.
NGN has denied there was a “secret agreement.” The palace hasn't responded to messages seeking comment on that or William's alleged settlement.
A spokesperson for News Group issued a statement Friday saying it was pleased that the court threw out Grant's phone hacking allegations.
“NGN strongly denies the various historical allegations of unlawful information-gathering contained in what remains of Mr. Grant’s claim,” the statement said.
Harry's case against News Group is one of three phone hacking suits he has brought against British tabloid publishers.
Fancourt is currently hearing evidence by a lawyer for Harry and three others against the publisher of the Daily Mirror for alleged acts of unlawful information gathering dating to the 1990s. Harry is due to testify in the case next month.
A different judge is currently reviewing whether cases brought by the duke, Elton John, actor and model Elizabeth Hurley, and others against the publisher of the Daily Mail should go to trial.
Credit: Jason Getz/AJC