Former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s wife Cherie sued News Corp. and a former private investigator for its now-defunct News of the World tabloid for hacking into her phone.
The lawsuit, filed Feb. 21 against the company’s U.K. unit and Glenn Mulcaire, comes as News Corp. prepares for the first civil trial over the scandal, scheduled to start next week in London. The company has already settled phone-hacking claims by Blair’s former press chief, Alastair Campbell, and former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.
News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch shuttered the News of the World in July in a bid to contain public anger after it was revealed the tabloid hacked into the voice mails of a murdered schoolgirl. While most of the current lawsuits have settled, the company may face claims by more than 800 possible victims identified by police.
“If it is true that a former prime minister’s family have been targeted by Rupert Murdoch’s hackers, then it is clearly a significant moment in the scandal,” Tom Watson, a Labour Party lawmaker who is on a parliamentary committee investigating the scandal, said in an e-mail.
A message left with the press office of News Corp.’s U.K. unit, News International, wasn’t immediately returned. Mulcaire’s lawyer, Sarah Webb, didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment. Mulcaire was jailed in 2007 for hacking phones of members of Britain’s royal family.
“We have issued a claim on behalf of Cherie Blair in relation to the unlawful interception of her voice mails,” her lawyer, Graham Atkins of Atkins Thomson Solicitors in London, said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. “I will not be commenting any further at this time.” Full details of the suit aren’t yet available.
Tony Blair, who led Labour to three successive general- election victories starting in 1997, regularly consulted with Murdoch during his decade in office. Vogue magazine reported last year that in 2010 he’d become godfather to Murdoch’s daughter Grace. His office didn’t respond to an e-mail requesting confirmation.
Cherie Blair, 57, was the subject of media attention throughout her husband’s premiership. She continued her career as a human-rights lawyer, and spoke of the difficulty of juggling life as a working mother of young children and the wife of the prime minister. Her father, Tony Booth, a prominent actor who supported Labour, was critical of many of his son-in-law’s policies.
“For a long time she felt she had a very rough ride from the press,” John Rentoul, Blair’s biographer, said in a telephone interview. “We saw that when she left Downing Street” on the day Blair left office in 2007.
“I don’t think we’ll miss you,” she told the assembled press as the Blairs quit the prime-ministerial residence in central London for the last time.
Cherie Blair also created her own problems. In 2006 she was overheard being rude about Gordon Brown, as he made a speech praising her husband, after Blair had been forced by followers of Brown to set a date for the then chancellor of the exchequer to succeed him as premier.
In 2000, she became the first wife of a serving prime minister in more than a century to give birth. Giving evidence to the judicial inquiry into media ethics last year, Blair’s spokesman, Alastair Campbell, suggested papers might have got wind of her pregnancy by phone hacking.
“With Cherie Blair in particular, she was turning up at places and the press was finding out about it,” Campbell said. He pointed to Associated Newspapers Ltd.’s Mail newspapers and Trinity Mirror Plc’s Mirror as having obtained stories that left him and his colleagues “scratching our heads saying, ‘How the hell did that get out?”’
“I hope Cherie Blair will also establish whether she was a target for covert surveillance and computer hacking,” Watson said. “And I hope Tony Blair comes forward to condemn Rupert Murdoch’s failure to deal with the criminal wrongdoing that went on over many years at News Corp. U.K.”
News Corp. paid 130,000 pounds last month ($204,000) to settle hacking claims by the actor Jude Law and 50,000 pounds to settle a complaint from his ex-wife, Sadie Frost.
A test trial involving singer Charlotte Church to determine damages in future cases is scheduled to start next week in London. Church may settle the suit before then, the Financial Times reported.
News Corp. has agreed to pay out $15.6 million to phone- hacking victims, settling at least 54 lawsuits out of 60 that were filed by October.
Police, Judicial Probes
The scandal has resulted in separate legislative, judicial and police probes. Five journalists at News Corp.’s Sun tabloid in London were arrested on Feb. 11 as part of a related investigation into bribes to officers and government officials.
News International will release a Sunday edition of its Sun tabloid this week, overseen by Murdoch. The 80-year-old News Corp. chairman flew into London last week to announce the new newspaper and reassure staff after 10 reporters were arrested as part of the police investigation into bribery.
He will stay in town for “several weeks” while the new edition gets off the ground. The tabloid will fill the hole left by the News of the World.
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The case is Cherie Blair v. Newsgroup Newspapers, High Court of Justice Chancery Division, No. HC12C00657.
--With assistance from Amy Thomson in London. Editors: Anthony Aarons, Eddie Buckle
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