Harbottle & Lewis has come out fighting against allegations of a cover-up in the ongoing saga of phone hacking at News International.
Newly released letters sent to the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee from Harbottle and former News International in-housers Tom Crone and Jon Chapman show the lawyers vigorously defending their positions and instructions against allegations made by the company’s executives Rupert and James Murdoch earlier this year.
Responding to criticism made of its role by Rupert Murdoch in the Wall Street Journal in July, Harbottle said: “The firm rejects News International’s self-serving view of the firm’s role in events.”
In 2007 Harbottle was instructed by Chapman, then director of legal affairs for News International, to assist the company in reviewing emails sent by and to the News of the World’s (NoW) then royal editor Clive Goodman.
According to Harbottle’s letter, the firm was given narrow instructions to review the emails to see if there was evidence that Goodman’s illegal phone-hacking activity was known about by News International executives. A small team of partner Lawrence Abramson, an employment assistant, two paralegals and a trainee spent two weeks examining five electronic folders of emails.
They concluded that the emails did not contain “reasonable evidence” that Goodman’s actions were known about or supported by others. The fees for the work amounted to £10,294 plus VAT.
Harbottle’s letter argues that the retainer was limited. The firm wrote: “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 firm also said it would have been unable to report any findings of illegality to the police due to legal professional privilege rules, and would have refused any wider instruction to look at phone-hacking allegations as it is not a specialist criminal practice.
It suggested that Rupert Murdoch may have confused Harbottle’s work with the wider investigation carried out by Burton Copeland.
Chapman and Crone have also written to the Select Committee to lay out their positions. Chapman said he left News International in June “entirely at my own instigation”. In his statement, dated 11 August, he said there had been “serious inaccuracies” in the evidence given to the committee by News International executives on 19 July.
Backing up Harbottle’s version of events, Chapman said he did not understand why the firm’s email review had been given so much weight. He said characterising it as a “general internal inquiry” or investigation into phone hacking was “very misleading”.
He added that it was normal for a firm to keep copies of emails printed out as part of their work, and accordingly there was “no cover-up of the existence of these emails”.
In his letter to the committee, News International’s former general counsel Crone defended his actions over litigation with former footballer Gordon Taylor. Crone and the NoW’s last editor Colin Myler argued that James Murdoch’s recollection of events was mistaken. The litigation settled in April 2008.