News Corp.'s U.K. publishing unit asked a judge to put an end to excessive disclosure requests made by lawyers representing phone-hacking victims as regulators prepare to rule on the controversial takeover of Sky Plc.
News Group Newspapers Ltd. is being sued by dozens of people who say their voicemail was illegally intercepted by tabloid journalists. The group includes television stars and a former professional soccer player. The publisher has settled hundreds of hacking claims since the allegations first emerged six years ago. But a trial of a handful of the hacking claims is scheduled for October, with vast amounts of potential evidence still being pored over.
"We are well beyond the point of vastly diminishing returns," Anthony Hudson, News Corp.'s lawyer, said in court Tuesday. "Enough is enough." The publisher has sifted through some 830,000 documents for the trial and, since September, the cost of the exercise has hit 7 million pounds ($8.9 million), Hudson said in court and in documents prepared for the London hearing.
The court case may become a hurdle for 21st Century Fox Inc. in its 11.7 billion-pound bid for Sky. Lawmakers in the U.K. have asked the government to consider past wrongdoing in Murdoch family controlled companies when deciding whether to approve the merger. James Murdoch, who was executive chairman of the U.K. publishing unit from 2008 to 2012, now runs 21st Century Fox as CEO.
The new disclosure proves "illegal information gathering was rife" at the Sun tabloid, David Sherborne, a lawyer for the hacking victims, said in court documents. The victims asked a judge to order the publisher to provide more information on emails written by Rebekah Brooks, now CEO of News Corp.'s U.K. unit, and James Murdoch as well as all invoices relating to any private investigators the newspapers used.
"The disclosure does not show, contrary to claimants' hopes and anticipation, that journalists at the Sun were engaged in voicemail interception either on a widespread or individual basis," Hudson said.
Ofcom, the U.K. telecommunications regulator, is reviewing the Sky deal and will report its findings to the Departure of Culture, Media & Sport on June 20.
The final decision rests with U.K. Culture Secretary Karen Bradley, who can approve the deal, attach conditions, or refer it to the Competition and Markets Authority for further review. Ofcom is studying whether the transaction is in the public interest, including the deal's impact on media plurality and broadcast standards.
The regulator is also assessing whether Sky would continue to be a "fit and proper" holder of a broadcasting license following the Fox takeover, a standard that involves reviewing potential misconduct by executives. Failing that test would effectively block the deal. While this assessment is separate from the public-interest considerations, Ofcom is conducting both reviews simultaneously.
The phone-hacking scandal scuttled News Corp.'s previous attempt to buy Sky in 2011. The discovery that journalists at the News of the World newspaper listened to message on the phone of a murdered schoolgirl led to multiple criminal and judicial probes into the company and the eventual conviction of Andy Coulson, a former editor of the tabloid.
The News of the World was closed by Rupert Murdoch in a bid to ease widespread outrage over the hacking. Brooks was cleared of any wrongdoing by a jury in 2014.
-- Bloomberg News