In evidence to a powerful Commons committee last month, James Murdoch said the highly-respected legal firm Harbottle & Lewis had effectively given News International ‘a clean bill of health’ following a review of emails relating to the phone-hacking scandal.
But a devastating collection of hitherto private correspondence between the London solicitors and the publishers of the News of the World blows apart his claims.
The documents leave him, his father Rupert and former News of the World editor Andy Coulson facing hugely embarrassing new allegations of deception and a monumental cover-up
In a direct challenge to the Murdoch version of events, the lawyers said: ‘There was absolutely no question of the firm being asked to provide News International with a clean bill of health which it could deploy years later in wholly different contexts for wholly different purposes.’
It claimed some of the Murdoch evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee was ‘hard to credit,’ ‘self-serving’ and ‘inaccurate and misleading’.
In a detailed, 24-page letter to the Parliamentary committee, Harbottle & Lewis details all its dealings with News International after disgraced News of the World royal reporter Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire were sent to prison in January 2007.
The saga starts on February 5, 2007 when News International chairman Les Hinton sent Goodman a letter saying he was ‘sorry’, but that events of the past months left the company with no choice but to ‘terminate your employment’.
On March 2, 2007, soon after he was released from serving a four-month jail sentence, Goodman replied to Daniel Cloke, the group human resources director, registering his appeal against the sacking and asking for a series of emails to help in his case.
Goodman wrote that the decision was perverse because he acted with ‘the full knowledge and support’ of named journalists.
Goodman crucially claims other members of staff were carrying out the same illegal procedures, adding: ‘This practice was widely discussed in the daily editorial conference, until explicit reference to it was banned by the Editor.’
Two versions of Goodman’s letter were provided to the Commons committee. In the Harbottle & Lewis version the names of the journalists he identified had been redacted at the request of police.
In the other, supplied by News International, not only the names, but all reference to hacking being discussed in Mr Coulson’s editorial meeting and the editor’s offer to keep Goodman on staff if he agreed not to implicate the newspaper had also been redacted.
News International first contacted Harbottle & Lewis in May 2007, and said the newspaper had trawled through ‘five sub-folders’ of emails and found ‘nothing that amounted to reasonable evidence’ to support Goodman’s claims that his illegal activities were known and supported by other senior staff.
Because of the danger of bad publicity if News International faced allegations of covering up potentially damaging evidence at an employment tribunal, it asked Harbottle & Lewis to carry out an independent review of the emails.
But the review was far from exhaustive. It was carried out predominantly by three junior employees, a trainee solicitor and a paralegal, who apparently had trouble accessing and opening some of the emails.
The bill for two weeks work was £10,294 plus VAT – a trifling amount for City legal expertise.
And Harbottle & Lewis said its review was ‘directly, specifically and solely related’ to assisting the newspaper in how to handle Goodman’s civil appeal against dismissal. It said it was never asked to investigate whether crimes had been committed at the newspaper.
It was not being asked ‘to provide some sort of “good conduct certificate” which News International could show to Parliament, or the police or anyone else outside the context of Mr Goodman’s employment claim. Nor was it being given a general retainer, as Mr Rupert Murdoch asserted it was, “to find out what the hell was going on”.’
In a withering final paragraph, Harbottle & Lewis says it ‘rejects’ the evidence of James Murdoch that News International ‘rested on’ a letter the law firm sent it on May 29, 2007, for its alleged belief that Goodman was a lone ‘rogue reporter’.
That letter, which has previously been published by the select committee in a non-redacted form, said: ‘I can confirm that we did not find anything in those emails which appeared to us to be reasonable evidence that Clive Goodman’s illegal actions were known about and supported by both or either Andy Coulson, the editor, and Neil Wallis, the deputy editor, and/or that Ian Edmondson, the news editor, and others were carrying out similar illegal procedures.’
In their evidence to the select committee last month the Murdochs presented this document as evidence that the company had been given a clean bill of health. But Harbottle & Lewis’s letter ends: ‘It is noteworthy that it has taken until 2011 for News International to make this assertion.’
The Daily Mail, by Michael Seamark