Harbottle scotches Murdoch’s claims

Phone-hacking select committee slams News Corp for blaming everyone but itself

The controversial decision of the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee to roundly criticise News Corporation chair Rupert Murdoch for the News of the World (NoW) phone-hacking scandal dominated last week’s headlines after the committee released its hacking report on Tuesday (1 May).

While the mainstream media has focused on what the report said about Murdoch and the party political splits evidenced in the committee’s voting, what the report said about the legal players in the saga is equally interesting. According to the committee, lawyers played a key part in both the concealment and the uncovering of phone hacking at NoW.

The select committee discussed extensively the roles played by News International’s former legal manager Tom Crone and by Harbottle & Lewis. Harbottle was employed by News International in 2007 to review internal emails, with the aim of ensuring there was nothing to back the claim of reporter Clive Goodman that phone-hacking was widespread and known about by senior executives.

When Murdoch gave evidence to the committee, he said that Lawrence Abramson, then a partner at Harbottle (now at Fladgate) had the remit of finding out “what the hell was going on”, while Murdoch’s son James claimed that Abramson’s advice had been key to the company’s assertions that ­Goodman was acting alone.

Harbottle’s vigorous defence of the Murdochs’ claims was supported by the select committee. “The letter sent by Harbottle & Lewis to News International at the conclusion of the review is… tightly worded and does not suggest the granting of a clean bill of health. It does not draw any conclusions about the existence, or otherwise, of evidence of any form of ­criminal activity other than phone-hacking,” the committee said.
Harbottle’s current managing partner Glen Atchison welcomed the committee’s findings, while Abramson declined to comment.

Action point

The committee criticised the lack of action taken by Jonathan Chapman, former News International director of legal affairs, and former HR director Daniel Cloke, over around a dozen emails that Abramson had queries on, but which fell outside the scope of Harbottle’s remit. They suggested that Chapman had “turned a blind eye” to the emails and had not wanted to investigate further.

The committee said: “We note, however, that there was sufficient doubt about the content of some of the emails examined for Lawrence Abramson to need reassurance on them from Jonathan Chapman. In this context, we’re astonished that neither Jonathan Chapman nor Daniel Cloke appear to have referred those emails anywhere else. We were particularly surprised that their certainty about these emails was such that they did not consult anyone with expertise in the criminal law to set their minds at rest.”

However, the committee reserved some of its strongest criticism for Crone, alleging several times that he had “misled” the committee when he gave evidence to it, relating in particular to the infamous ’for Neville’ email, said to be proof that phone-hacking was not confined to one “rogue reporter”.
The report says Crone played a significant role in News International’s actions over phone-hacking – although the committee said there were wider problems with corporate governance at the company.

“News Corp’s strategy has been to lay the blame on certain individuals, particularly [former NoW editor] Colin Myler, Tom Crone and Jona-than Chapman, and lawyers, while striving to protect more senior figures, notably James Murdoch. Colin Myler, Tom Crone and Jonathan Chapman should certainly have acted on information they had about phone-hacking and other wrongdoing, but they cannot be allowed to carry the whole of the blame, as News Corp has clearly intended.”

In a statement published on Twitter on 1 May by former NoW PR head Hayley Barlow, Crone said: “The select committee has concluded that I gave misleading evidence in three specific areas. I do not accept this. In particular, the committee finds that I misled it by giving a ’counter-impression’ on certain matters. In terms of judicial or formal rulings on evidence, ’counter-impression’ seems a particularly subjective concept upon which to base such serious allegations. For the avoidance of doubt, I entirely accept the NoW phone-hacking scandal is a matter of enormous public importance which needed a full and proper investigation and I in no way wish to diminish the good work undertaken by the committee.”

Referring to evidence given by Rupert Murdoch to the Leveson Inquiry on 25 April, Crone said: “I accept that there are valid criticisms of my conduct in this matter but for the second time in a week, I seem to be the subject of serious allegations which lack foundation.”

Taylor Hampton partner Mark Lewis, who is acting for a number of phone-hacking victims, said he was unable to comment on the report. But he did suggest that it sent a warning to in-house lawyers on the contentious advice they should give to their companies.

“It raises an issue as to whether or not it’s appropriate to have in-house lawyers acting for their clients,” Lewis said. “There’s always the risk that people end up going native.”

The phone-hacking scandal remains under scrutiny by Lord Justice Leveson, whose inquiry continues.