Former executives challenge Murdochs' testimony

September 6, 2011 - 1:30 PM
Britain Phone Hacking

FILE-In this Saturday , July 9, 2011 photo News of the World tabloid newspaper Editor, Colin Myler poses with a front page of the last edition as he leads his staff out of the headquarter of News International, the publisher of News of the World newspaper, in London. Four former executives at Rupert Murdoch's News International are testifying before British lawmakers on the country's tabloid phone hacking scandal. (AP Photo/Sang Tan)

LONDON (AP) — Four former News International executives challenged statements made to Parliament by their bosses — Rupert and James Murdoch — with one saying Tuesday that the media mogul wrongly blamed outside lawyers for improperly investigating his company's phone hacking scandal.

Jonathan Chapman, the former director of legal affairs with News International, said the elder Murdoch made a mistake when he blamed the London law firm Harbottle & Lewis for failing to uncover the scope of the hacking scandal back in 2007. News International is the British arm of Murdoch's News Corp.

"I don't think Mr. Murdoch had his facts right," Chapman told lawmakers. "He was wrong."

Chapman was one of four executives fielding questions Tuesday from Parliament's media committee about what they knew and when. All cast doubt on key aspects of the testimony given by Rupert Murdoch and his son James earlier this summer.

The hacking scandal has devastated the family's British newspaper arm, leading to the closure of the News of the World tabloid and the arrests of more than a dozen of its former journalists. On Tuesday, News International announced 110 job cuts across its surviving titles.

Revelations of systematic wrongdoing at the top-selling Sunday newspaper have also rocked British police and politicians, both of whom are accused of turning a blind eye to shady practices for fear of antagonizing the Murdochs' powerful media empire.

Andy Coulson, a former News of the World editor and until recently Prime Minister David Cameron's top media aide, has resigned in the scandal — as have the two top officers with Scotland Yard. Coulson has also been arrested.

Although allegations of illegal behavior are still emerging, the scandal's focus has shifted to questions of who knew what and when — and whether senior Murdoch lieutenants tried to bury the scandal by paying off those involved.

On those points, the Murdochs and their former executives do not agree.

For example: Was James Murdoch made aware of a critical piece of evidence unearthed in 2008 which suggested that phone hacking went beyond Goodman, the only reporter ever convicted over the practice?

The younger Murdoch told parliamentarians in July that he wasn't. On Tuesday, his former legal adviser Tom Crone repeatedly insisted that James Murdoch was.

"He realized that the News of the World was involved, and that that involved people beyond Clive Goodman," Crone said. He was backed by Colin Myler — who replaced Coulson as News of the World editor following Goodman's conviction.

"Everybody perfectly understood the seriousness of the discussion," Myler said.

And what about the massive payout made to Goodman after he'd been convicted of illegal eavesdropping? Who on earth, one parliamentarian asked, would authorize the payment of a quarter million pounds ($400,000 at current rates) to a criminal?

In a letter to parliamentarians, James Murdoch said it was Chapman, along with Daniel Cloke, News International head of personnel that authorized the payment to Goodman.

Not so, the pair said Tuesday. They both testified that it was Les Hinton, one of Murdoch's most trusted aides — and until recently the publisher of the Wall Street Journal — who authorized the award. Hinton is the most senior Murdoch executive to resign in the scandal.

Chapman said Hinton claimed to be acting on compassionate grounds, although he acknowledged that it might seem odd that News International was acting so generously toward an employee guilty of gross misconduct

"It could be seen from the outside as a strange thing to do," he said.

News International attacked its former employees' testimony as "unclear and contradictory."

In a statement, James Murdoch said he stood by his previous statements, alleging that "neither Mr. Myler nor Mr. Crone told me that wrongdoing extended beyond Mr. Goodman or (Glenn) Mulcaire" — the private investigator Goodman was employing. Both Goodman and Mulcaire went to jail for phone hacking.

Tuesday's testimony did indeed include contradictions — Myler and Cloke, for example, disagreed on what the latter had said following News International's internal investigation. In a couple of places, Crone's statements seemed at odds with what he had told lawmakers earlier — although he insisted he was being consistent.

There was a fair amount of forgetfulness on display Tuesday as well.

Crone, for example, couldn't remember whether he was at work the night that the News of the World published details of teenage murder victim Milly Dowler's phone messages. Myler couldn't remember whether he was involved in reviewing invoices when he took over at the News of the World.

And no one seemed to be able to remember for sure whose decision it was to keep paying Goodman's legal fees even though he had dragged the paper's name through the mud.

"I'm fairly sure it was Les Hinton," Crone said.

Myler, near the end of his testimony, said he believed the scandal had given up all its secrets.

"I doubt whether anything remains under wraps," he said.

But then Crone confirmed that a freelancer working for News of the World had put together a dossier on two lawyers representing hacking victims who were suing Murdoch's empire. Attorney Mark Lewis, who represents phone hacking victims, has described the move as an apparent attempt by Murdoch's newspaper to gain an unfair advantage their legal battles.

Crone refused to say who had commissioned the work, citing the ongoing police investigation.

In a separate development, a judge-led inquiry aimed at evaluating the health of Britain's scandal-tarred press held its first hearing Tuesday. Lord Justice Brian Leveson said he would look into the "culture, practice and ethics" of the press and later into the extent of any improper conduct.

___

Raphael G. Satter can be reached at: http://twitter.com/razhael