Media executive James Murdoch knew of a damaging piece of evidence three years ago that phone hacking was practiced by more than one reporter at the News of the World tabloid, despite his statements to the contrary, two of his former colleagues said Tuesday.
The assertion by Colin Myler, the paper’s last editor, and Tom Crone, its head in-house lawyer, boosted the likelihood that Murdoch will be called to appear again before Parliament to explain the discrepancy. Both he and his father, media magnate Rupert Murdoch, gave evidence to lawmakers in July after the phone-hacking scandal broke wide open and threw their massive News Corp. empire into turmoil.
Myler and Crone, who were summoned to reappear before Parliament on Tuesday, said they talked to James Murdoch briefly in 2008 about an email that seemed to implicate the News of the World’s chief reporter in the tapping of cellphones, an illegal tactic for which a colleague, Clive Goodman, had already been convicted and jailed.
The email surfaced in a lawsuit brought by a former soccer star against the News of the World, which he accused of intercepting his voice mail messages. Crone told lawmakers the email convinced him it would be better to settle the case rather than fight it.
“It was evidence clearly … that it went beyond Clive Goodman,” Crone said of the phone hacking, which had been characterized as the work of a lone “rogue reporter.”
Crone said he sought permission to settle from Murdoch, who was in charge of News International, the News of the World’s parent company. The meeting lasted “about 15 minutes,” during which “I am certain that I explained to him … this document meant it was clear that News of the World had a wider involvement” in hacking than was previously revealed.
Added Myler: “I think everybody perfectly understood the significance and the seriousness of what we were discussing.”
Their statements are awkward for Murdoch, who insists he only became aware in the last year or so that the illegal accessing of cellphones was possibly rife at the News of the World in its pursuit of sensational stories.
On Tuesday, he said he stood by his words before Parliament in July. Neither Crone nor Myler told him during their 15-minute meeting that wrongdoing extended beyond Goodman and the private detective he hired to hack into phones, Murdoch said in a statement released by News International.
His former colleagues also did not show him the damning email or mention the chief reporter to whom it appeared to refer, Murdoch said, adding: “There was nothing discussed in the meeting that led me to believe that a further investigation was necessary.”
Whether lawmakers will be satisfied by Murdoch’s explanation is doubtful. Once cowed by the power of News International, which owns the Sun and the Times of London, politicians have been emboldened by the scandal to speak out against both James and Rupert Murdoch, saying they must be held to account for the actions of their media properties.
Lawmakers also sharply questioned Crone and Myler about the size of the financial settlement with the former soccer player, Gordon Taylor, which exceeded $1 million.
Crone acknowledged that the big payout and a confidentiality agreement were designed to make the case go away as quickly as possible, to avoid possible lawsuits from four other people in a position similar to Taylor’s. But he denied there was any attempt by the News of the World to cover up widespread criminality.
The tabloid was shut down in early July, days after allegations surfaced that the paper not only listened to the voicemails of movie stars and famous athletes but also murder victims and their relatives, including a 13-year-old girl who was killed by a nightclub bouncer in 2002.
More than a dozen people have been arrested so far in connection with the scandal, which has cast a harsh light on the dodgy tactics employed by Britain’s tabloid press and on the chummy relationships between media executives, high-ranking politicians and Scotland Yard, whose chief resigned as a result.
The police probe into the case is one of the biggest operations underway at Scotland Yard. News International says it is cooperating fully with the investigation.