Today, the owners of The Sun newspaper were in court again fending off claims that they deleted emails and covered-up evidence of hacking. Allegations which they fiercely deny. Byline recaps on what was said at the last court hearing in March about allegations of deletion.
By Graham Johnson
Editor, Byline Investigates
TODAY BYLINE REVEALS the background to an ongoing case in the High Court involving hacking allegations at The Sun.
An important aspect of the case claims that masses of evidence has been destroyed.
Executives at The Sun newspaper gave differing reasons why 20 million emails were deleted in a previous hearing.
When first asked, lawyers acting for the newspaper offered no clear explanation behind the mass removal of electronic data.
But the company’s IT boss claimed the clean-out was ordered for technical reasons. However, a second executive at the newspaper group – the controversial former editor Rebekah Brooks – gave another motive entirely.
She cited legal reasons.
The revelations were made in the High Court case during sittings on March 9th and 10th in which alleged phone hacking victims are suing The Sun.
It is the first time the Murdoch-owned tabloid has been accused of intercepting voicemails.
However, lawyers for The Sun deny phone hacking and allegations cover-up by deleting email files.
In the eighth part of our series examining alleged criminality at the daily newspaper, Byline explains both sides of this little-reported case.
In Part One, we revealed how Sun reporters tried to hack into the medical records of a suspected cancer victim.
In Part Two, we published the actual email and touched upon claims of deleting others, in an alleged bid to cover-up phone hacking, a conspiracy that The Sun denies.
Today, we examine the paper’s controversial email deletion policy which critics claim was part of a “concealment” plan to prevent evidence of hacking from coming to light.
In previous witness statements, News Group Newspapers – which owns The Sun – had not admitted why the publisher had deleted the emails.
Barrister David Sherborne, acting for the alleged phone hacking victims, said: “the case of the defendant was essentially a non-admission about the reasons for the deletion or destruction of millions of emails.”
But in his latest statement, senior boss Paul Cheesbrough said the emails were destroyed because the IT system had been suffering from problems.
Mr Cheesbrough, the former Chief Information Officer, stated that: “The impetus for the decision to implement batch deletion of emails was that the existing email and general IT system had had significant problems, particularly in relation to archiving, and had reached the end of its useful life”.
Opposing lawyers, acting for the claimants, seized on this “curious” development, arguing that it was a “significant change in the defendant’s case.”
Chris Hutchings, the lead solicitor for the claimants, said: “While the Defendant has, in previous evidence, referred to the issues that it was encountering with its IT system in 2009 and 2010, it has never before positively stated that this was the reason for the batch deletion of millions of emails in late 2010 and early 2011.”
But counsel for News Group Newspapers repeatedly denied this amounted to a cover-up.
Anthony Hudson QC, acting for The Sun, said: “It is not appropriate to be making such serious allegations in this context.
“I have to say that my client’s position has been throughout that emails were not deleted as any part of a cover-up.”
But the situation got even more confusing when further information came to light.
New evidence, which ‘flies in the face’ of emails that had been shown to the court before, was said to be part of a deliberate plan of “concealment and destruction.”
One such email was sent by Rebekah Brooks to a colleague called John Chapman in the legal department on 12 May 2010.
Brooks attached a proposed policy headed, “Framework for email deletion.”
Brooks said that the opportunity that this deletion provided was: “… to eliminate in a consistent manner across News International (subject to compliance with legal and regulatory requirements) emails that could be unhelpful in the context of future litigation in which a News International company is a defendant.”
The court heard how James Murdoch was informed of the email deletion plan.
The claimants’ barrister David Sherborne said: “It is emails like that which form part of our destruction and concealment case.”
He stressed that the deletion “was deliberately ordered by those at the top of the tree as a way of getting rid of incriminating emails for the civil litigation.”
However, the counsel representing News Group Newspapers said the insinuations were unfair.
Anthony Hudson QC said: ‘It seems to us that it is deeply unfair for my learned friend to use these opportunities to make very serious allegations in open court, particularly as he does about email deletion and he bandies about enormous figures – I think he said 20 million emails were deleted. It is just wrong. It is a very complex topic.”
Brooks was cleared of phone hacking and perverting the course of justice in 2014 and has always maintained that she did not delete emails to cover-up criminality.
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