By Graham Johnson
Editor, Byline Investigates
RUPERT Murdoch’s right-hand-man Les Hinton knew about phone hacking at the News of the World two years earlier than he stated in evidence to a Parliamentary Committee, according to de-restricted court testimony uncovered today by Byline Investigations.
The 74-year-old former Executive Chairman of Murdoch’s News International was named at least six times at the Central Criminal Court in London as knowing about the paper’s hacking of former British Home Secretary David Blunkett’s voicemails for an August 2004 front-page story about his private life.
The claims, made by the Sunday tabloid’s then editor Andy Coulson at the Old Bailey hacking “super-trial” of 2014, directly contradict testimony Hinton gave three times to Parliament in which he denied any knowledge of the illegal practice prior to a police raid on the paper’s newsroom in August 2006.
Hinton has always insisted, following the arrests of Royal Editor Clive Goodman and the paper’s in-house private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, he believed hacking was isolated to “one rogue reporter” on the News of the World staff.
Coulson, Hinton vowed, was equally as ignorant of wider wrongdoing.
In 2007 he told the Commons Culture Media and Sport (CMS) Select committee: “I believe absolutely that Andy did not have knowledge of what was going on.” And of Goodman, he added: “I believe he was the only person.”
Hinton went further in more testimony in 2009. He said: “There was never firm evidence provided or suspicion provided that I am aware of that implicated anybody else other than Clive within the staff of the News of the World – it just did not happen.”
He went on: “We went, I promise you, to extraordinary lengths (to investigate phone hacking) within the News of the World.”
But in 2012, the CMS Select Committee found Hinton had been misleading in some of his evidence, and reported him to Westminster’s Committee on Privileges.
In 2016, having waited for criminal trials to conclude, the Privileges Committee published its own report, and found – on review – insufficient evidence to hold Hinton in ‘contempt’ of Parliament for lying to MPs.
However, Byline Investigations has scrutinised the report, and found no evidence the Privileges Committee took account of Coulson’s sworn 2014 testimony, in which he expressly insisted Hinton knew all about the Blunkett hacks back in 2004, in reaching its conclusion.
The discrepancy in recollection between the men is significant because of Hinton’s position of ultimate responsibility within News International at the time, and the questions it raises about who knew what – and when – about the emerging phone hacking scandal that today looks set to cost the Nasdaq-traded company £1bn in costs and damages.
Coulson’s detailed re-telling of two key conversations with Hinton – in which he said he revealed Chief Reporter Neville Thurlbeck was illegally hacking Blunkett’s phone messages – was heard by the jury in 2014.
But, in order to protect the right to any future fair trial, Judge Mr Justice Saunders ordered Hinton’s identity to be protected. He was referred to simply as a ‘senior executive’.
At the time, News International was facing possible prosecution for ‘corporate liability’ for hacking and bribing public officials, putting the company itself – rather than just its employees – at jeopardy.
Scotland Yard detectives had interviewed Hinton, whose career with Murdoch began as a copy boy at 15 and saw him go on to run the company at his side, under caution in 2012.
However, no corporate charges developed. As a result Coulson’s evidence has never been challenged in a courtroom, or even reported – until now.
Questioned by his own barrister, Timothy Langdale QC, Coulson – who says he informed Hinton because Blunkett was his personal friend (in fact Hinton went on to marry the Home Secretary’s special adviser Katherine Raymond) – told the Old Bailey: “I told him what I knew…. I explained, I think, in summary what Neville had said to me.”
Coulson, who at the time was preparing to meet Blunkett in his Sheffield constituency to confront him with what the hacked messages had revealed, added: “I made Les Hinton aware of what I knew and what I was planning to do. I was not asking for his permission or for his authority.”
Courtroom 12 of the Old Bailey heard the men had further conversations, both after the meeting and before Coulson published, as a front page exclusive, what was the biggest political story of the year, helping Murdoch’s News of the World sell around 3.5m copies that weekend.
Cross examining, Andrew Edis QC asked: “Mr Hinton; he knew about it?”
“He did,” Coulson confirmed.
“It was covered up, wasn’t it?” pressed Edis.
“It wasn’t covered up by me, no,” said Coulson.
Coulson said: “I’ve already described the before conversation. There was a conversation after, and there was a conversation – at least one conversation – the Saturday when we were putting the paper together.”
He went on: “My memory is that I spoke to Les to tell him that I would be running the story. It’s possible that that was a text but I would have told Les that I was running the story on the Saturday.”
In another witness box exchange, this time with Goodman’s barrister David Spens QC, Coulson was asked whether, on allegedly learning of the Blunkett hacks, Hinton ordered any type of investigation. Coulson said Hinton did not.
Cross-examined by Andrew Edis QC, for the Crown, Coulson was asked whether he had reported Thurlbeck’s illegal newsgathering – a clear breach of the Editors’ Code of Conduct, written by a committee of which Hinton was chairman – to the police.
“I did not tell the police about that, no,” he said, “I did not volunteer that information.”
Mr Edis then asked: “Mr Hinton; he knew about it?”
“He did,” Coulson confirmed.
“It was covered up, wasn’t it?” pressed Edis.
“It wasn’t covered up by me, no,” said Coulson.
Hinton himself, known widely at the time as Murdoch’s “man in London”, paints Coulson’s sworn testimony as the lies of a now-convicted phone hacker.
Speaking for the first time of Coulson’s claims, he said: “The assertions… are based entirely on the testimony of a man defending himself at a criminal trial, at which a jury found him guilty.”
However, Byline Investigations can reveal a second employee who reported directly to Hinton was fully aware of the 2004 Blunkett hacks by Thurlbeck, who was jailed for his crimes in 2014, becoming Coulson’s cellmate at Belmarsh high security prison.
News International’s former top lawyer Tom Crone told officers from the Metropolitan Police’s Operation Weeting, in an interview – seen by Byline Investigations – made under caution in 2012: “If there were big issues, like a case that could be high profile, I might go very often to the chief executive actually, so that would be Les Hinton.”
Tapes and transcripts of the 2004 Blunkett hacks were later found secreted in Crone’s safe, and Judge Saunders referred to Crone’s knowledge in his summing-up.
Of alleged collusion between the men to cover up on Blunkett, the judge said: “Mr Coulson had made a decision not to reveal to the police or, indeed, anyone what Neville Thurlbeck had done in relation to phone hacking Mr Blunkett.
“He made the decision not to do that, he said, because of the potential impact such a revelation could have had on him and on the newspaper.
“Well, that decision, presumably, was also made by others in News International who knew about that phone hack.
“That would include Tom Crone and Les Hinton, who both knew about the Neville Thurlbeck phone hack, we have been told, but that was not Mr Coulson told you, as a result of any agreement between them.
“They must have all independently reached that decision and the prosecution say well, how can that be?”
Coulson’s previously restricted evidence heavily undermines the evidence Hinton repeatedly offered to MPs investigating the possibility of corporate responsibility at News International.
In a report, the CMS Select Committee said it felt misled by Hinton.
But the Privileges Committee, while finding Crone guilty of contempt, stated that there wasn’t any “concrete” evidence upon which to “fix” a finding of contempt on Hinton.
Responding to detailed questions before we published this article, Hinton said: “Two years after Andy’s trial, when the Privileges Committee had reviewed the transcript of the criminal court testimony you cite, as well as other evidence, it overturned the 2012 finding of the Culture Committee that I had given misleading evidence to parliament, and had known about allegations of phone hacking.
“This report said: ‘The evidence that Les Hinton misled the CMS Committee about the extent of his knowledge of allegations that phone-hacking extended beyond Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire to others at News of the World does not meet the standard of proof set for a finding of contempt’.”
However, Byline Investigations’ journalists have examined the Privileges Committee report and underlying documents and have found no evidence it considered the claims Coulson made about Hinton’s knowledge in 2004 at his trial.
We will be publishing an in-depth analysis of its work and findings in an extended article in the coming days.
We have asked Hinton where he thinks the Privileges Committee, which is known for its arcane workings, dealt with the matter in its report. He offered no comment as we went to publication.
The disagreement between Hinton and Coulson, both of whom resigned over the phone hacking scandal, with Coulson going on to become director of communications for former British Prime Minister David Cameron, belies a previously very close working relationship..
St Katherine’s Dock, Wapping, London, where Hinton called Coulson the News of the World’s ‘greatest editor’
The confidential source said: “Andy became Hinton’s favourite. Around that time, he’d had a phenomenal run of exclusives, in addition to Blunkett.
“I remember The Screws (the name journalists had for the paper) had a party at the height of that run to celebrate the News of the World winning Newspaper of the Year.
“Everyone was absolutely trashed. Andy Coulson was there. Rebekah Wade (later Brooks) who was editing The Sun at the time, was there too. But it was mainly News of the World people.
“Les got up on stage to do a speech, and he said: ‘I’d like to introduce you to the greatest editor the News of the World has ever had’. He then ushered the waiting Andy onto the stage, with Rebekah (who had edited the News of the World before him) standing right next to him.
“There was collectively a sharp intake of breath at what Les said. It was the most astonishing snub to Rebekah who, until then, had always been considered Les’s favourite. Rebekah was standing there right next to Andy. It was a bombshell.
“It happened 13 years ago but it was very memorable. It was a calculated snub to Rebekah. You’ve got to remember – Andy was like God at the time. No editor had had a string of exclusives like that.”
Indeed when the Sunday tabloid claimed its national title in March 2005 at the Press Awards, the victory was based largely on phone-hacked stories.
Even its ‘Scoop of the Year’ – about David Beckham’s relationship with a PR girl – was partially derived from phone hacking.
After the 2007 conviction of Goodman and Mulcaire, Hinton was moved from London to New York where he became Chief Executive of the Wall Street Journal.
He held on to the post until public outrage erupted in 2011 over the hacking of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s phone in 2002, and Murdoch responded by closing down the News of the World entirely, after 168 years in print, and with the loss of more than 200 jobs.
Fearful corporate charges might spread across the Atlantic to affect Murdoch’s licenses to operate in America – and even put the top man himself in the dock – the mogul split off his lucrative US entertainment assets into 21st Century Fox, now an entirely separate business to his troubled British newspapers.
Then, in order to show it was an “assisting offender” – acting as both defendant and witness at the same time – the newly re-named ‘News UK’ turned informer on its own journalists and sources, leading to dozens of arrests and prosecutions for hacking and bribing public officials.
It was enough to stave off the threat of corporate charges for its role in what has since been alleged (in the civil courts) to have been a high-level cover up involving payoffs to criminals and the destruction of 30 million emails.
Hinton is now poised to publish his memoirs on May 24 – titled The Bootle Boy: an untidy life in news – relating his 47 years working across three continents for Rupert Murdoch.
In it, he describes his old boss as a “colossus”.
He said: “Over fifty years, I met a lot of people and saw a lot of things. Rupert Murdoch was a big part of my working life… Rupert could be hell to work for and he earned many of his enemies.
“He’s a driven businessman with heavy boots who bruised a lot of people… I saw him at all angles.”