Legal Brief: The blame game
11 May 2012 | By Christian Metcalfe
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While the mainstream media focused last week on the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee’s criticism of Rupert Murdoch for the News of the World (NoW) phone-hacking scandal, what the committee’s report said about the legal players in the saga is equally interesting.
The select committee discussed extensively the roles played by lawyers in both the concealment and the uncovering of phone hacking at NoW.
Harbottle & Lewis 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.
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.
However, the committee reserved some of its strongest criticism for News International’s former legal manager Tom 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”.
Although the committee said that while Crone played a significant role 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 Jonathan 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.”
Taylor Hampton partner Mark Lewis, who is acting for a number of phone-hacking victims, suggested “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.”