This article was first published 13/05/2018
By Graham Johnson
Editor, Byline Investigates
ONE OF Rupert Murdoch’s leading national newspaper editors exchanged emails with a voicemail hacker about a politician’s “messages” and told the same reporter to destroy a computer containing evidence of the crimes, the High Court has heard.
Neil Wallis, 67, later went on to deny on oath at the Old Bailey any knowledge of the hacking of former Home Secretary David Blunkett’s private messages, recordings and transcripts of which police found in a legal manager’s safe at the now-closed News of the World.
The new evidence – presented by lawyers acting for 31 people alleging phone hacking went on at its sister paper The Sun – was not shown to the jury when Wallis was cleared of masterminding phone hacking at the defunct Sunday tabloid in a three-week criminal trial in 2015.
Asked then whether he knew about the hacking, Wallis said “no”, adding of transcripts of messages illegally intercepted by the News of the World’s chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck: “The first time I saw them was in these (criminal trial) case papers.”
Wallis, a veteran newsman dubbed “The Wolfman”, told the Old Bailey colleagues kept him in the dark about illegal newsgathering – later proved to be widespread – because he was the paper’s face on the industry self-regulator, the Press Complaints Commission.
But last Thursday at the High Court in London, barrister David Sherborne told managing judge Mr Justice Mann that Wallis – who insists he was only charged because of “political” conspiracies – was in fact well acquainted with the so-called journalistic dark arts.
Mr Sherborne said: “We specifically allege the involvement of Mr Wallis in that.”
The new evidence centres on email “metadata” recovered from old backups of messages subsequently destroyed by Wallis’s former employers News Group Newspapers (NGN), in what phone hacking victims say was a cover-up of the truth about illegality.
Further fresh allegations are emerging from a statement given to the police by former News of the World editor Colin Myler in 2009, which relate a confession from Thurlbeck about phone hacking and his claim that Wallis ordered the destruction of evidence.
Mr Myler gave the statement to the police voluntarily after officers found out that Thurlbeck had confessed to him.
The High Court heard Thurlbeck started listening to the voicemails of Mr Blunkett on July 20 and July 21, 2004. According to the emerging new metadata, Thurlbeck then emailed his boss – Wallis – the next day, Thursday, July 22, at 9.15 am.
The subject line was “Blunkett msg 2”.
Lawyers for the claimants allege this was a reference to Mr Blunkett’s private voicemails, recorded during Thurlbeck’s eavesdropping. Five minutes later, the court heard, Wallis replied, using the subject line “RE: Blunkett msg 2”.
The voicemails formed the basis for a News of the World front page in August 2004 about a private relationship between Mr Blunkett and the American magazine publisher Kimberly Quinn.
The exact contents of the emails is unknown, because they were later part of massive “batch deletions” carried out on the instruction of News International bosses, Rebekah Brooks and James Murdoch, allegedly to destroy evidence at a time when the company was under investigation by the police and facing civil phone hacking cases.
The two email fragments are among a database of hundreds of thousands of email “stubs” containing the metadata of some of the millions of emails deleted by News International, allegedly so the company could destroy evidence of widespread illegality.
The email stubs relate to emails that could not be recovered when the police ordered News International to try and restore the deleted email archive.
The court heard how NGN deleted 30 million emails on the orders of the then News International Chief Executive Rebekah Brooks – a figure some 10 million higher than previously claimed at criminal trials, civil cases, and Leveson Inquiry into Press ethics.
But for some unrecoverable emails, metadata – which included time, date, sender, recipient and subject line, but not actual contents of a message – was still available.
Last November, as the original date for a trial of claimants against The Sun neared, NGN unexpectedly disclosed that the subject lines in these stubs were searchable. Some 400 new email fragments, it said, were relevant to the case, among them the Wallis/Thurlbeck emails.
Shortly after the Sunday tabloid broke its Blunkett story in 2004, the court heard, Thurlbeck told Wallis and the paper’s then editor Andy Coulson – who was convicted in 2014 of phone hacking Mr Blunkett – he had used his work telephone to hack voicemails and then used his work laptop to write about them.
Mr Sherborne said: “Despite the obvious illegality to be said of the activity, he (Thurlbeck) was told, we say, in the meeting with Mr Coulson, Wallis and Mr Kuttner to destroy his computers and thereby remove any incriminating evidence. We specifically allege the involvement of Mr Wallis in that.”
Byline Investigations can reveal that in 2009 Thurlbeck told the News of the World’s then editor, Colin Myler, about the destruction of the phone and computer in 2004.
The then deputy editor Jane Johnson made a contemporaneous note of a meeting between the men, according to a statement Mr Myler later gave voluntarily to the Metropolitan police, but which was not directly referred to in court last week, or in the 2014 Old Bailey trial of Kuttner, who was also acquitted of conspiring to intercept communications.
Contemporaneous: handwritten note contains destruction of evidence allegation
Arguing about the significance of the email metadata to the claimants’ case, Mr Sherborne said the Wallis/ Thurlbeck email showed “significance to the metadata, notwithstanding the fact that we don’t have the contents of the email.”
“Either the timing, or the identity of the sender,” he added, “assists us in relation to the concealment case, or the actual message may assist us in relation to the generic case on unlawfulness…”
The claimants are arguing Wallis’s emails were deliberately destroyed by NGN in a cover-up, either as a result of massive “batch deletions” of entire years’ worth of email data across the company, or as part of “targeted” deletions focused on staff it feared to be criminal liabilities.
NGN is alleged to have conducted a long-running and extensive “concealment and destruction” operation involving many senior executives such as Brooks, and Rupert Murdoch’s own son, James.
In his 2014 trial, Andy Coulson told the Old Bailey of Thurlbeck’s admission he proved the Blunkett/Quinn story through phone hacking.
Both were convicted, going on to share a cell at the notorious Belmarsh Prison, Thamesmead, south east London.
News Group Newspapers is denying deleting emails to cover-up hacking and destroying evidence.
Its lawyers argued the metadata didn’t advance the claimants’ case that it destroyed evidence, an allegation the company, owned by Nasdaq-listed News Corp., does not admit.
A previous courtroom heard that NGN began a “clean sweep” destruction of emails in September 2010, days after lawyers for the actress Sienna Miller revealed she was suing for phone hacking.
Though legally on notice to preserve documents, a huge purge of company emails – up to the end of 2004 – began; the period covering the early editorships of The Sun and News of the World of Chief Executive Rebekah Brooks.
Legal disclosure has shown Brooks first suggested the deletions in January 2010.
In an email she announced a new official policy “to eliminate in a consistent manner across NI (subject to compliance with legal and regulatory requirements as to retention) emails that could be unhelpful in the context of future litigation in which an NI company is a defendant”.
News International, of which NGN is parent company, insists it also had to destroy the emails for technical IT reasons.
Further rounds of mass “batch” deletions (of emails from 2005, 2006 and 2007) took place in January and February 2011 – after police had started re-investigating the developing hacking scandal.
Emails from 2008, and later – including ones critical to James Murdoch’s knowledge of the first phone hacking claim in the £500m+ saga, brought by football union chief Gordon Taylor – were also deleted, suggesting further “targeted” purges of later emails.
Clare Montgomery QC, counsel for NGN, argued that further disclosure of the email metadata would not assist the claimants’ case.
She said: “It doesn’t advance his (Mr Sherborne’s) claim to be able to put his destruction case more coherently, because as I have indicated, the fact there’s a stub rather than a message doesn’t tell you anything about when it was deleted or how it came to be deleted, whether through corruption or deletion.”
Wallis faced criminal charges as part of Operation Pinetree into ex-News of the World features staff, a separate inquiry to the one into hacking by the paper’s newsroom staff, which resulted in the jailing of Coulson and Thurlbeck.
Private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, who worked closely with Thurlbeck, was also hacking into Blunkett’s voicemails left on her phone.
Wallis claimed that News of the World editor Andy Coulson told him the David Blunkett scoop was from a “source” and not derived from phone hacking.
Wallis, Coulson’s deputy between 2003 and 2007, having previously been editor of The People – itself now facing a separate avalanche of historic phone hacking claims – denied being party to the practice, discovery of which led to the Sunday tabloid’s closure in 2011, when it was found to have hacked murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.
Neil Saunders, Wallis’s Old Bailey barrister, said of his client: “Everyone at the News of the World knew him before his arrival, and if they didn’t then soon after he joined they would find out he was a man who followed the (Press Complaints Commission) code (of Conduct). “He is not someone who would bypass the code.”
On July 1, 2015, Wallis was cleared after the jury spent four days considering the charges against him. From behind the glass wall of the dock, he mouthed “thank you” to them.
“This is the culmination of a political drive by the police and the CPS. It’s a disgrace.”
Outside court, he branded the Crown Prosecution Service “a disgrace” for accusing him, saying his prosecution was some sort of “politically motivated” conspiracy.
He said: “It’s ruined my life all because of a vicious politically driven campaign against the press launched by (the former director of public prosecutions) Keir Starmer and (his then principal legal adviser) Alison Levitt.
“This is the culmination of a political drive by the police and the CPS. It’s a disgrace.”
Three years on, the phone hacking saga continues to blight News Group Newspapers.
With its financial exposure in legal costs and compensation now on course to top £1bn, the trials continue…