Select committee exonerates Harbottle over Murdoch’s ‘major mistake’ claim

Harbottle & Lewis, which was accused by Rupert Murdoch of making “a major mistake” in underestimating the scope of the phone-hacking scandal, has been cleared by a report from the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee.

The firm was criticised by News International (NI) executives Murdoch and his son James when they faced MPs in the House of Commons.

Murdoch senior alleged that former partner Lawrence Abramson was instructed to “find out what the hell was going on” while James Murdoch claimed that a letter from Abramson to News International director of legal affairs Jon Chapman was a “pillar” on which the media company based its claims that Clive Goodman was a rogue reporter acting alone.

However, today’s select committee report found that Chapman and NI group HR director Daniel Cloke gave Harbottle a “narrowly drawn” remit to review internal emails to ensure there was nothing to back Goodman’s claim that phone hacking was widespread and known about by senior executives if the allegations came out in an employment tribunal (16 August 2011).

The law firm had been approached because of its expertise in employment law.

Abramson wrote to confirm with Chapman that he had reviewed the emails and there was “no reasonable evidence” to implicate other reporters. But he did query a dozen emails that Chapman argued “fell outside the scope” of what NI had asked Harbottle to consider.

Yet the committee heard from Cloke, who suggested that Abramson should have acted if he saw “definite evidence of criminal activity”. On this point Murdoch told the committee last year: “[The letter] was one of the pillars of the environment around the place that led the company to believe that all of these things were a matter of the past and that new allegations could be denied.”

Chapman later gave evidence to say that Rupert Murdoch “did not have his facts right” when he accused Harbottle. The firm also hit back at criticism from Murdoch in his own publication The Wall Street Journal by saying his views were “self-serving” (15 July 2011).

The firm gave written evidence to the committee defending itself against claims that it should have taken action. It 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.”

The committee’s report states: “Then literally, this is correct.

“We note, however, that there was sufficient doubt about the content of some of the emails examined by 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.”

In a summary of ‘The Harbottle & Lewis investigation’ the select committee report said that NI repeatedly made “misleading and exaggerated claims” about its own investigations.

The report said this applied to the 2007 Harbottle email review and the August 2006 engagement of Burton Copeland. The latter firm was instructed to respond to Metropolitan Police requests for information, not to investigate wrongdoing as former News of the World editor Colin Myler and lawyer Tom Crone claimed.

The report concluded: “The account we have heard of News International’s internal email review and the second review, conducted by Harbottle & Lewis, is unedifying. It’s clear that the emails examined didn’t exonerate company employees from all suspicion of possible criminal wrongdoing, possibly not even from phone hacking.

“It’s probable that all those who reviewed the emails will have been aware that this was the case.

“The fact that Jonathan Chapman drew up such narrow terms for the Harbottle & Lewis review strongly suggests that he was deliberately turning a blind eye to emails that he didn’t want to investigate further.

“In keeping his conclusions about the emails strictly within the narrow scope of his investigation, Lawrence Abramson was undoubtedly simply doing his job as a lawyer. Indeed, he seems to have made some effort to alert news International to problems that he uncovered.”

In other headline points from the report, MPs have concluded that Rupert Murdoch is not a fit person to run News Corp, that he and his son James were guilty of willful blindness, that several senior figures at NI have misled parliament and that the company has perpetrated a “cover-up” that treated MPs with contempt.

They had previously accused the media giant of “collective amnesia” regarding phone hacking.

The House of Commons could yet take action against individuals for contempt of parliament.

Glen Atchison, who replaced Abramson as managing partner at Harbottle, said today: “We’re pleased to see that the firm’s evidence and description of the exercise that we were retained by News International to undertake in 2007 has been confirmed by the committee in its report.”

Abramson, now a partner at Fladgate, declined to comment.