Hacking Culture at News Corp
From The Wall Street Journal for subscribers only:
By CASSELL BRYAN-LOW
LONDON—Newly released documents show that an outside lawyer for News Corp. in 2008 warned of a “culture of illegal information access” at the company’s News of the World newspaper, raising new questions about News Corp.’s longtime assertion that it was unaware of how widespread phone hacking was at the now-closed tabloid.
The lawyer’s opinion, and other documents released Tuesday by Parliament’s Culture, Sport and Media Committee, add to already mounting pressure on top News Corp. executives, including Deputy Chief Operating Officer James Murdoch, who has insisted he was in the dark about the extent of illegal reporting tactics at the time.
The committee is looking at whether News Corp. executives misled lawmakers investigating the scandal over the past few years.
The documents released Tuesday show that company lawyers—both a News Corp. insider and outside attorneys assisting with litigation over phone hacking—were aware that phone hacking at News of the World went beyond a single rogue reporter. The lingering question is whether their findings were brought to the attention of top company officials such as Mr. Murdoch, whose statements have been contradicted publicly by former underlings.
Among the documents released Tuesday is a June 2008 legal opinion provided by a lawyer hired by News Group Newspapers, the U.K. unit of News Corp. that published the tabloid, to advise it in civil litigation filed by a former soccer player alleging he had been the victim of phone hacking.
The lawyer, Michael Silverleaf, wrote to News of the World’s in-house counsel, saying that “there is overwhelming evidence of the involvement of a number of senior NGN journalists in the illegal enquiries into [redacted].”
It is unclear which specific inquiries he was referring to, but Mr. Silverleaf made the comments within the context of saying that the company’s prospects of avoiding liability for the former soccer player’s claims “are slim to the extent of being non-existent.”
Mr. Silverleaf’s opinion goes on to state that “there is a powerful case that there is (or was) a culture of illegal information access used at NGN in order to produce stories for publication.” He adds that the airing of such information in a public trial would be “extremely damaging to NGN’s public reputation.”
A person close to News Corp said Mr. Murdoch didn’t see the Silverleaf opinion in 2008.
Mr. Silverleaf couldn’t be reached for comment.
Senior executives at News Corp. long maintained that phone hacking was limited to one reporter, Clive Goodman, and a private detective, Glenn Mulcaire, on the paper’s payroll; both were sentenced in 2007 after pleading guilty to illegal voice-mail interceptions.
News Corp. also owns The Wall Street Journal.
This past July Mr. Murdoch told the parliamentary panel that evidence of more widespread wrongdoing only surfaced largely at the end of 2010 during civil litigation brought by celebrities and others claiming to be phone-hacking victims. Mr. Murdoch, son of News Corp. Chairman and Chief Executive Rupert Murdoch, will face further questions from lawmakers with a scheduled reappearance before the panel Nov. 10.
“James Murdoch has been clear and consistent in his testimony,” a News Corp. spokeswoman said. She added that Mr. Murdoch will address questions the lawmakers have when he appears before the committee next week, but declined to comment on specific details included in the documents.
James Murdoch approved a roughly £700,000 settlement ($1.1 million) in 2009, including legal fees, with the former soccer player, Gordon Taylor.
The parliamentary panel also released other documents that provided greater detail around the briefing Mr. Murdoch may have received in 2008 about Mr. Taylor’s case. Previously, News of the World’s former editor, Colin Myler, and its former top lawyer, Tom Crone had testified that they had informed Mr. Murdoch of critical evidence in the case in the form of an email that suggested the hacking activity at the News of the World was more widespread. But Mr. Murdoch has told the parliamentary panel that he wasn’t told at the time about the email.
Among the documents released Tuesday was a two-page briefing note prepared by Mr. Crone for Mr. Myler ahead of a meeting between the editor and Mr. Murdoch in May 2008.
The briefing note refers to the critical evidence several times, saying there “was an email from a News of the World reporter to Mulcaire enclosing a large number of transcripts of voice mails from Mr. Taylor’s phone.” That email, which the company has said was sent in 2005 by a junior reporter, appears to show that at least one other reporter beyond Mr. Goodman was aware of phone hacking. The email isn’t included in the briefing notes.
The briefing note describes the email as “fatal to our case” and says “the damning email is genuine and proves we actively made use of a large number of extremely private voicemails from Taylor’s telephone in June/July 2005.”
Also released Tuesday were notes made several days later by another outside lawyer hired by the company to advise on the Taylor case— Farrer & Co. LLP partner Julian Pike—following a call with Mr. Myler. Mr. Pike’s notes detail that Mr. Myler had spoken to Mr. Murdoch but are unclear about what Mr. Myler may have said, if anything, about the email.
Mr. Pike’s notes end by saying “James wld say get rid of them—cut out cancer,” which appears to be a reference to what Mr. Myler thinks Mr. Murdoch would say about employees found to have hacked phones. It’s not clear that was a comment Mr. Myler made, or something Mr. Murdoch said.
Mr. Murdoch has told the panel that he received a briefing on the case in June 2008 by Mr. Myler and Mr. Crone but that he didn’t recall any prior briefing. Of the June meeting, he said he recalled being told that the litigation related to the interception of Mr. Taylor’s voice mails by Mr. Mulcaire on behalf of News of the World. Mr. Murdoch said he didn’t ask for evidence and that neither Messrs. Myler and Crone told him that wrongdoing extended beyond Mr. Goodman or Mr. Mulcaire.