By Graham Johnson
Editor, Byline Investigates
RUPERT Murdoch’s News International surrendered the wrong hard-drive for its Chief Executive Rebekah Brooks to police investigating phone hacking, the High Court has heard.
Officers from Operation Weeting seized the disk – supposedly removed from Ms Brooks’ old personal work computer by News International and kept in a safe – only to later discover it could never have come from her machine.
The drive was of particular interest to detectives as it was potentially the only store of Ms Brooks’ emails from a key time period in an alleged cover up of criminality at Britain’s biggest-selling newspapers.
“The hard drive given to the police was encrypted and such encryption could not have been placed on such a make and model,” ~ Chris Hutchings, claimants’ solicitor
David Sherborne, barrister for alleged victims of phone hacking and other illegal news-gathering at The Sun and News of the World, said the disappearance was something the police found suspicious.
The device was said to have been removed just days before the launch of Operation Weeting, and at the same time as the company’s attempts to blame what turned out to be widespread phone hacking on a single “rogue reporter” were collapsing.
Mr Sherborne told presiding Judge Mr Justice Mann: “Ms Brooks’ hard drive, which was taken out, was never located by the MPS (Metropolitan Police Service). What was provided to them was not her hard drive, as was proved.”
The claimants are alleging News Group Newspapers (NGN) destroyed millions of emails in an attempt to conceal corporate wrongdoing by the business.
Senior Operation Weeting police officer, Detective Inspector Barney Ratcliffe, has given evidence in support of claimants suing NGN, of which Ms Brooks remains CEO, as they successfully applied for a court order for disclosure of key internal emails.
Of DI Ratcliffe’s testimony, lead solicitor for the claimants Chris Hutchings said in a statement: “(It) concerns NGN’s concealment and destruction of material, and is relevant to the claim made by NGN that its deletion of millions of potentially relevant emails, scratching of back-up tapes and removal of hardware, a substantial amount of which was consequently not available to (MPS) during Operation Weeting, were done for ‘commercial, IT and practical reasons’ and – in the case of scratching the back-ups – due to a ‘security threat’.
“Apart from a very small number of emails referring to a ‘threat’ in general (and on occasion very cryptic) terms, no documents have been disclosed in relation to a threat, despite the Claimants requesting them in correspondence.
“Mr Ratcliffe’s evidence is that he does not recall seeing any documents or reports in relation to an alleged ‘threat’.”
During her criminal trial in 2014 on charges of conspiracy to hack phones and bribe public officials – of which Ms Brooks was cleared after denying knowledge of wrongdoing by her staff – she suggested the disk was removed because of concerns about leaks of her emails by an unnamed individual within News International’s IT department.
Asked by her defence QC Jonathan Laidlaw whether she had given any instruction on what should happen to her old hard-drive, Ms Brooks said: “No, just to make sure that my emails couldn’t be leaked by anybody inside IT.”
Ms Brooks’ hard drive was removed on the instructions of NGN’s then head of IT Paul Cheesbrough in early 2011, shortly after the company had been told to preserve emails by solicitors acting for victims of phone hacking, of whom more than 1,000 have now received damages settlements.
A separate episode was described relating to the email archive stored on Ms Brooks’ current computer.
Mr Sherborne said: “Ms Brooks’ diary shows an entry that she had in the early morning of 14 January (2011) with Mr Coulson, former editor (of the News of the World) Cheryl Carter, Ms Brooks’ assistant, emailed Ms Brooks asking for her computer password and stated: ‘Nigel removing your PST (Personal Storage) files. Paul C [as in Cheesbrough] spoke to you about this’.”
He added: “We say it is highly suspicious what happened with the hard drive.”
When Weeting detectives later arrested Ms Brooks, on July 18, 2011, Mr Cheesbrough revealed the existence of the hard drive and handed it over to the investigation.
Mr Hutchings’ statement said: “It was subsequently discovered that the hard drive he gave to the police could not have come from Ms Brooks’ old PC.
“The hard drive given to the police was encrypted and such encryption could not have been placed on such a make and model.”
The statement went on: “The events surrounding the disappearance of Ms Brooks’ hard drive are highly relevant to the Claimants’ pleadings…”
The case continues…