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The Sunday Times and David Hunt: we still need big media

Exposing big wrongs is expensive.

Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Sunday Times. Photograph: Getty Images

News Corp has gone to great lengths to draw a line under the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.

News International is no more, rebranded as News UK. There are hardly any top executives from 2011 still in place at News UK. The News of the World itself has gone. And most recently we have the decision to leave Wapping – the scene of riots in 1986 and nefarious journalistic practices more recently - and move The Sun, Times and Sunday Times into a brand-new glass-clad office in London Bridge.

But for me the best answer News UK can have for its critics is to support more journalism like the courageous exposure of gangster David Hunt by the Sunday Times.

The initial 23 May 2010 piece by Michael Gillard alleged that Hunt was the head of a criminal network “so vast that Scotland Yard regards him as "too big" to take on”.

Defending the libel action launched by millionaire "legitimate businessman" Hunt took three years. If the Sunday Times had lost at trial, costs would have run into the millions and damages would have been £250,000.

The original story was largely based on leaked Serious and Organised Crime Agency and police documents.

In order to prove the claimed meaning of its article, that Hunt was “a ‘crime lord’ who controlled a vast criminal network, involved in murder, drug trafficking and fraud” the Sunday Times had to rely on those documents.

The paper decided to contact the Met before disclosing any leaked documents in its defence.

You would think the Met would be delighted that a figure who has eluded it for decades might at least face some justice at the High Court. But the Met’s response was to sue the Sunday Times for recovery of the documents and an order banning their publication.

It also launched a huge internal mole hunt for the source of the leak.

The Sunday Times eventually won this secondary legal battle in November 2011, when it was allowed to make use of redacted versions of the leaked documents in its defence.

The libel trial itself took place over three weeks in May this year. Giving evidence against Hunt has been a dangerous thing to do in the past, so the Sunday Times employed five expensive professional security guards to protect its witnesses.

On the second day of the trial they walked out, the paper reported, after being approached in a pub. Another security firm refused to take the job on.

The Sunday Times’ ultimate victory over Hunt no doubt had much do with the professionalism and diligence of reporter Michael Gillard.

His cross-examination by Hunt’s lawyer Hugh Tomlinson QC (chairman of Hacked Off no less) bears repetition, as he sums up an investigation into the activities of Hunt which went back 11 years.

Tomlinson:

As a responsible journalist, the best you can say is ‘A lot of police officers have made serious allegations against Mr Hunt of criminality’, is it not?

Gillard:

No, that’s not the best I could say. I could say a lot better than that.

What I’d say is this; that, when I look at 11 years of looking at Mr Hunt and his development within the criminal hierarchy, I am looking at the huge expenditure of the Metropolitan Police: Different squads, unrelated squads with  individuals who don’t know each other, with senior  management who don’t know each other, who are in different  areas, some of them, who have sustained police operations of  surveillance, bugging, very expensive, very time consuming,  and then I look at the fact that, over that 11 year period, the net  result may not be that Mr Hunt has been arrested for the three  offences that you have talked about, murder, drug trafficking.

However, I consider that the Serious Organised Crime Group  then take over that investigation away from the [Metropolitan Police], because, as a report I saw commented, the Met found the Hunts to be "‘too big for them".

Tomlinson:

But you know ...                                                                                                                                                           .

Gillard:

Sorry, if I may finish? Therefore, the fact that the Serious  Organised Crime Agency is conducting an operation from 2006  into this individual and his - to quote a report I saw - family  based organised crime group and gives very, very hard detail of what they’re looking at (detail I can’t refer to), I think, as a responsible journalist, I am entitled to take the view that it can’t be right that all these officers and all these senior managers and all those who are responsible for releasing the public money have all conspired somehow to target Mr Hunt, because they don’t believe there is anything in it...

The information I had at the time was an analysis of his financial accounts, evidence of his relationship with a known money launderer, the use of offshore companies, a history of violence, access to firearms; all these are evidence of organised crime activity. Then I have the documents from official sources, documents that aren’t disputed as to their authenticity, that detail, crushing detail, of the level of surveillance and operations targeting Mr Hunt and his organised crime group.

When I put all this together, I take the view that there is truth in the allegation that he is the head of an organised crime group.

After winning its libel case, The Sunday Times was able to publish further revelations based on the leaked documents stating that "using a ‘network’ of corrupt serving and former officers Hunt is alleged to have located and then intimidated a man into not giving evidence against him even though he was a police-protected witness”.

The Sunday Times journalists investigating Hunt may have put their own safety at risk.

In March 1992 Peter Wilson decided to investigate for the Sunday Mirror Hunt’s involvement in the unsolved murders of Maxine Arnold and Terry Gooderham, acting on a tip-off from a police source.

He doorstepped Hunt at his Epping home and, finding he was not in, told Hunt's wife what he wanted to speak to him about.

Wilson returned later in the day and explained in a witness statement what happened next:

This time I noticed the claimant himself, walking quickly up  the path from his house in a determined and aggressive manner.  He looked furious. I instinctively backed-off a few steps; and  without saying a single word or pausing, he grabbed me by the  lapels and violently head-butted me just above my right eye. I offered no resistance at all. He then said to me, ‘You fucking cunt. I’ll up you, talking to my wife about fucking murder." I  remember these words clearly ... I staggered back in pain and  shock and made my way to the car.

Wilson suffered a fractured orbital bone in his eye socket. Hunt denied the attack in court, but the judge decided that he was lying.

The hacking scandal and subsequent Leveson Inquiry showed what can go wrong at a big media company.

But the Sunday Times’ exposure of David Hunt proves that sometimes you need big media to expose big wrongs and that it can be huge force for good. Few other media organisations could have run to the  expense of standing this story up.

This article first appeared on Press Gazette.

Dominic Ponsford is @Domponsford on Twitter.