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Letters Reveal Law Firm’s Assessment Did Not Clear News International of Criminal Activity

James Murdoch at a CSMC parliamentary hearing in July. Murdoch oversees News International. (photo: Ben Terrett)

A UK parliamentary committee, the Culture, Sports & Media Committee (CSMC), which has been investigating the News of the World phone hacking scandal for the past months, released letters from various individuals involved in the scandal. The contents include new revelations on News International’s approval and support of the practice of phone hacking.

A letter from Clive Goodman, sent out on March 2, 2007, to Daniel Cloke, Group Human Resoruces Director at News International, is being called a “smoking gun.” The Guardian posted the letter on its website with annotations that provide greater insight into Goodman’s assertion that the practice of hacking was “widely discussed” in News International meetings.

Goodman was a royal correspondent for News International, who was “sacked” after being imprisoned in January 2007 for hacking into the phone of someone from the Royal Household. He was in jail for four months for phone hacking. News of the World even referred to him as a “rogue reporter.”

In the letter, Goodman also asserts that his “conviction and imprisonment cannot be the real reason” for being “sacked.” Goodman makes this claim because News International paid Goodman’s legal fees and also defended him in court. He adds, “Tom Crone [legal manager] and the Editor promised on many occasions that I could come back to my job at the newspaper if I did not implicate the paper or any of its staff in my mitigation plea. I did not, and I expect the paper to honor its promise to me.” Goodman appealed his dismissal charging he was unfairly dismissed.

James Robinson of The Guardian concludes “in the clearest possible terms” this is evidence Goodman “agreed to carry the can for phone-hacking in exchange for keeping his job in a deal negotiated by Crone and Coulson.” [Andy Coulson was editor of News of the World from 2003 until he resigned in 2007. He was arrested July 8 on allegations of corruption and phone hacking.]

The Guardian points out just why this rekindles controversy: UK Prime Minister David Cameron hired Coulson on “the basis that he knew nothing about phone hacking.” Rupert and James Murdoch are now likely to be called back to parliament to verify and further explain evidence they gave last month. [Keep in mind they were not put under oath.]

Another key document setting off shockwaves is a letter from the London-based law firm Harbottle & Lewis, which is known for advising clients in the media, communications and entertainment industry. James Murdoch told the Culture, Sports & Media Committee (CSMC) on July 19, 2011, Harbottle & Lewis’ review of News International emails was what the company had rested on when it assured the Committee in 2009 the phone hacking had been the work of only Goodman. The letter explains why this letter should not be considered valid evidence of good conduct at News International.

The letter indicates News International had instructed the law firm to limit its assessment of the company to Goodman’s appeal against his dismissal from his job. Harbottle & Lewis suggests the instructions from News International could be paraphrased as, “If we reject Goodman’s appeal against dismissal and he brings employment tribunal proceedings, what is the risk of him establishing from these emails that other people were aware of his phone hacking activities, or were doing the same thing themselves?” Thus, Harbottle & Lewis did not give News International “a clean bill of health which it could deploy years later in wholly different contexts for wholly different purposes.”

The firm did not think the assessment would constitute a “good conduct certificate” that could be shown to Parliament, the police or anybody else.

Furthermore, Harbottle & Lewis explains the firm did not consent to the letter being submitted to Parliament as proof of “corporate innocence.” They would not have agreed to the submitting of the letter even if they had been approached. The “exercise” was a “short review.” The firm was involved in a “classic civil litigation question.” No criminal lawyers were involved. They could not have given News International any sort of document they could use to show they had not committed criminal activity.

This explanation would be enough to establish that the firm’s services have been manipulated. But, Harbottle & Lewis continues by noting if they really had been tasked with finding out what the hell was going on (as Rupert Murdoch put it), they would have been involved in assessing a criminal matter.

Harbottle & Lewis has “no expertise in that field” so they could not have helped News International. But, the firm presumes they would have required News International to provide unlimited access to all emails and other records, direct access to key witnesses, a forensic computer analysis that would help uncover emails and other electronic evidence, access to documents seized by the Metropolitan Police from Glenn Mulcaire. [Mulcaire was a private investigator that worked for News International and was jailed for phone hacking the same time as Goodman.]

It’s worth noting News International only provided Harbottle & Lewis “remote electronic access to emails” on the company’s server and did not supply the law firm with paper copies of the emails for the firm’s assessment.

A Guardian editorial suggests these letters should put to rest the false claims that “one bad apple was responsible for the phone-hacking scandals.” The documents provide greater detail on when certain individuals ensnared in the scandal were deliberately misleading authorities and government and when they were not. Robinson writes, “Key players in the phone-hacking saga, including former News of the World editors Colin Myler and Andy Coulson, the paper’s ex-lawyer Tom Crone, and Les Hinton, who chaired News International until 2008, are now engaged in a Mexican standoff.”

The revelations not only further implicate the Murdochs and others at News International but should also move members of the UK parliament to investigate what Cameron knows about hacking at News of the World.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."