It's hard to believe it's less than two weeks since News of the World shut up shop – so much has happened in the life of News International since then. If closing the paper was meant to somehow protect the parent company's brand, it hasn't worked. And with the latest accusations that James Murdoch misled Britain’s parliament on Tuesday, the favourite son isn't emerging from the crisis unscathed. By THERESA MALLINSON.
Two weeks ago then News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks faced angry News of the World staff. During that meeting, she explained why she had not resigned, telling staff they would understand her decision in 12 months’ time, and hinting worse revelations were yet to come. Never mind that Brooks flip-flopped and resigned a mere week later, the “worst is yet to come” soundbite is one nugget of truth in an otherwise confusing and obfuscatory mess.
In the latest allegation, former News of the World employees Colin Myler, the paper’s last editor, and Tom Crone, its head of legal affairs, have accused James Murdoch of misleading parliament during his appearance before the house of commons select committee on culture, media and sport on Tuesday. One line of questioning during the hearing focused on the £600,000-plus payment to Gordon Taylor, the former Professional Footballers Association chief executive. Taylor sued the newspaper for hacking his phone; James Murdoch authorised the out-of-court settlement in 2008. At Tuesday’s hearings Labour MP Tom Watson asked James: “When you signed off the Taylor payment, did you see or were you made aware of the full Neville email…?” James Murdoch clearly stated: “No, I was not aware of that at the time.”
The “Neville” email, refers to an email sent from private investigator Glenn Mulcairne, to the newspaper’s chief news reporter Neville Thurlbeck, containing a transcript of hacked voicemail messages from Taylor’s phone. James Murdoch says he didn’t know about it; Myler and Crone say he did. In a statement issued on Thursday, they said: “Just by way of clarification relating to Tuesday’s culture, media select committee hearing, we would like to point out that James Murdoch’s recollection of what he was told when agreeing to settle the Gordon Taylor litigation was mistaken. In fact, we did inform him of the ‘for Neville’ email, which had been produced to us by Gordon Taylor’s lawyers.” News Corporation has since issued a statement, saying: “James Murdoch stands by his testimony to the select committee.”
Whether or not Murdoch was privy to that email matters a great deal – if he saw it, knowledge of the prevalence of phone-hacking at News International goes up a lot higher in the company than previously admitted.
Ironically enough, James Murdoch, who is now himself accused of misleading parliament, has previously made exactly the same accusation against others. When the committee decided to summon the three executives, chairman John Wittingdale said: “Serious questions have arisen about the evidence given to the committee by a number of witnesses in its previous inquiry into press standards, libel and privacy. In particular, James Murdoch has said that Parliament was misled. That is a very serious matter that we will not allow to go unquestioned.”
The evidence in question refers to the appearance before the committee in 2009 of Myler and Les Hinton, who both claimed they had not seen emails pointing to the fact that phone-hacking was widespread, and not the work of a single rogue reporter. “I conducted this inquiry with Daniel Cloke, our director of human resources,” Myler told the committee at the time. “Over 2,500 emails were accessed because we were exploring whether or not there was any other evidence to suggest essentially what you are hinting at. No evidence was found.” Myler and Crone may now be playing the blame game, but they don’t exactly appear to have a scrupulous record for truth-telling either.
But News International’s latest problems don’t stop with these two former employees. The law firm Harbottle & Lewis, called in to review 300 internal emails as part of the media company’s investigation into phone-hacking in 2007, is set to appear before the committee in October. Rupert Murdoch criticised the firm last week, telling the Wall Street Journal that “it was their major mistake in reporting that there was nothing further to worry about”. Harbottle & Lewis became increasingly frustrated at being unable to offer any defence, owing to a client-confidentiality agreement. However, on Wednesday News International gave the law firm permission to speak to both the metropolitan police and the parliamentary committee about their part in reviewing the emails.
The extent of Harbottle & Lewis’s brief from News International is crucial: Was it tasked with investigating emails relating only to royal correspondent Clive Goodman, or given a wider remit to investigate phone-hacking at the company? If it’s the latter, the “rogue reporter” defence will be exposed as an orchestrated cover-up tactic, rather than a simple lack of knowledge.
When News of the World was shut down – with 200 staff losing their jobs in the process – the Murdochs appear not to have considered the ramifications of angry former employees turning on them. Myler and Crone’s accusations have shown this to be a serious miscalculation. And more disgruntled hacks (and hackers) are sure to join in the finger-pointing. Just for starters: Now that News of the World is no longer paying private investigator Glenn Mulcairne’s legal fees, he no longer has an incentive not to name names.
As Rupert Murdoch’s trusted – if not trustworthy – lieutenants fall one by one, even his own son’s future is now in doubt. There are two fundamental lines of questioning to be followed in the plethora of investigations looking into the phone-hacking scandal. The first relates to the extent of the criminal acts that took place; the second to how much top executives knew – and how much they were, and are, involved in covering it up. If James Murdoch was personally involved in the cover-up, his dream of one day leading his father’s company will remain just that – a dream. DM
Photo: BSkyB Chairman James Murdoch appears before a parliamentary committee on phone hacking at Portcullis House in London July 19, 2011. REUTERS/Parbul TV via Reuters Tv
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