The threat of having to pay out high damages and costs has a “chilling effect” on freedom of speech, the media is often heard complaining – but some lawyers argue it is the only effective deterrent keeping the press from running wild.
The News of the World has set up a £20m fund to dip into whenever it needs to compensate victims of phone hacking, with Sienna Miller already accepting £100,000.
Dominic Crossley, a partner at the London-based lawyers Collyer Bristow, says that “there is no one-size-fits-all solution”. Writing in Legal Week, he claims £20m might not be enough because the fund “exists in the continued ignorance of how many complainants are to share in it”.
Some would question whether £20m is enough when News International, NoW‘s publisher, makes a yearly turnover of around £33bn.
Crossley says: “It is arguable that if ever there was a need for the civil court to provide a deterrent it is here. Whilst arrests and potential prison sentences must be a sobering prospect for some of the News of the World’s star journalists, it appears that the fate of [Clive] Goodman and [Glenn] Mulcaire was insufficient deterrent given the temptation to attempt to peek into Kelly Hoppen’s messages [for instance] in 2009 as alleged in her claim.
“Journalists have been and will remain under huge pressure from executives to break stories and it will require a cultural change, inspired by heavy financial consequences in every case, to prevent this technique from being used in the future by a tabloid industry that remains obsessed with celebrities’ private lives.
“As Lord Diplock said in Broome v Cassell: ‘It is only if there is a prospect that the damages may exceed the defendant’s gain that the social purpose of this category is achieved – to teach a wrongdoer that tort does not pay.'”
Crossley reveals that “a number of the current phone-hacking claimants have included exemplary damages in their claims against News Group,” but admits that Wapping’s “settlement strategy” may mean that none of the cases reach court.