RUPERT Murdoch’s News International began the mass destruction of email evidence implicating its papers in widespread illegal news-gathering the same day it realised its “one rogue reporter” defence for its crimes was going to collapse, the High Court has heard.
Lawyers acting for claimants alleging phone hacking and data theft at both The Sun and News of the World tabloids have identified Friday, January 14, 2011, as the moment one of the biggest alleged cover-ups in corporate history began.
It was the day Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders announced a comprehensive review of evidence seized by Scotland Yard in a 2006 probe into voicemail interception of the Royal Household by the NotW, which saw Royal Editor Clive Goodman and private eye Glenn Mulcaire jailed.
“That is when millions of emails were deleted. It is just as the police were coming in on Operation Weeting, it is when the back-up tapes were destroyed… there were all sorts of things happening… in January 2011,” ~ Claimants’ barrister David Sherborne
And it was the day NI privately discovered, in an internal security review of its own, three “highly incriminating” emails sent by former NotW Head of News Ian Edmondson, which proved phone hacking was far more prevalent than it had previously admitted.
The claimants say the emails’ discovery sparked a sequence of events, involving Ms Brooks, former General Manager Will Lewis, top lawyer Jon Chapman, and IT chief Paul Cheesbrough, designed to conceal and destroy proof of at least nine years of serious criminality at Britain’s biggest newspapers.
It allegedly included the removal of Ms Brooks’ personal email archive from her computer, the scratching up of back-up email archive tapes, the protection of top executives from exposure to more damaging information, and the start of a mass deletion running to at least 20 million emails prior to January 14, 2011.
At a pre-trial review last Thursday, September 27, claimants’ barrister David Sherborne painted a picture of News International – since rebranded News UK – as a business in crisis, facing a closing net of scrutiny, and possessing a closet filled with unwelcome legal skeletons.
Mr Sherborne told managing judge Mr Justice Mann: “In the critical period… in January 2011, so your Lordship has the scene set, that is when millions of emails were deleted.
“That is why we say it is the knowledge of senior executives at that time, even though for the next however many years they maintained the ‘one reporter rogue’ line,” ~ David Sherborne
“It is just as the police were coming in on Operation Weeting, it is when the back-up tapes were destroyed and so on. There were all sorts of things happening, as you have seen, in January 2011.”
Mr Sherborne went on: “Fourteenth of January, in a very busy and important period, was one of the most critical days, as we have said.
“On that day Mr Chapman was sent the file of the Ian Edmondson emails that we (say) proved that the one rogue reporter line was no longer viable and they knew it.”
Mr Sherborne went on to suggest the company knew from the outset in 2006 its defence was untrue, saying: “(Edmondson) blew a hole in the ‘one rogue reporter’ (story).
“That is why we say it is the knowledge of senior executives at that time, even though for the next however many years they maintained the ‘one reporter rogue’ line.”
The court heard that Rebekah Brooks, who answered to Executive Chairman James Murdoch at the time, began January 14 with a face-to-face meeting with her former lover Andy Coulson, who had resigned from the editorship of the NotW in 2007, over the Royal hacking.
Coulson, the then Director of Communications to Prime Minister David Cameron, was later convicted of conspiracy to hack phones at the Old Bailey, receiving an 18-month prison sentence in July 2014.
Ms Brooks was acquitted of the charge at the same trial, after pleading ignorance of wrongdoing by her staff, and as the prosecution lacked evidence to prove otherwise.
What Mr Coulson and Ms Brooks discussed that morning remains unknown.
Mr Sherborne said: “The DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions) announced the comprehensive review of phone hacking material. Ms Brooks’ diary shows an entry that she had in the early morning of 14 January with Mr Coulson, former editor.
“Cheryl Carter, Ms Brooks’ assistant, emailed Ms Brooks asking for her computer password and stated: ‘Nigel removing your PST (Personal Storage) files. Paul C (Cheesbrough) spoke to you about this’, which is an email only recently disclosed by News Group.”
It later emerged that Ms Brooks had “opted out” of an automatic email archiving system and that the original hard drive from her computer had been substituted for another that did not belong to her. Police could not decrypt a further thumb drive said to have held her personal email archive files.
Also on January 14, 2011, former NotW Managing Editor Bill Akass, wrote himself a memo relating allegations being made by the paper’s Chief Reporter Neville Thurlbeck, saying he and Ian Edmondson possessed “devastating information” about phone hacking.
Mr Thurlbeck had wanted to give the information directly to the paper’s then editor Colin Myler and Ms Brooks herself, but, the court heard, was denied the opportunity after the matter was discussed by NI lawyers.
Mr Sherborne went on: “Bill Akass (former NotW Managing Editor) on that day sent himself the memo recording the allegations by Mr Thurlbeck, that he and Mr Edmondson had devastating information about phone hacking, and there are also obviously the millions of emails that were deleted at that period.
“Now, despite all of that, and the critical nature of that day, no emails passing between these executives dealing with all of these matters have ever been disclosed, no explanation for the urgency to extract all of this material and delete emails on that day; and we say there must have been email exchanges between senior executives.”
Mr Sherborne said it was suspicious that, on January 14, NI’s Legal Director Jon Chapman ordered the firm’s then Head of Information Security, Chris Williams, to immediately “down tools” once the three Edmondson emails – which contained voicemail pin numbers of Lord Freddie Windsor, Tessa Jowell and former political advisor Joan Hammell – had been discovered.
Explaining the potential relevance of the instruction, Mr Sherborne said: “One possible (meaning) would be ‘Don’t look any further, please’… as in: ‘we don’t want to find any more evidence of unhelpful documents’.”
A memo by Bill Akass to himself on 14 January 2011 revealed that Will Lewis, then NI’s General Manager, and later a key member of the Management and Standards Committee, the organisation that handed detectives evidence relating to phone hacking and police bribery on dozens of NI’s journalists, had told him that Mr Chapman would be “showing them to RW (Rebekah Wade: Ms Brooks’ unmarried name) first”.
Calling for Chapman’s report to be disclosed, Mr Sherborne said: “Now, the report on the Edmondson emails and any emails attaching to that report have never been disclosed, and we say that would be relevant, plainly, because it would show the knowledge of both Mr Lewis and potentially of Ms Brooks, both of whom are specifically named as guilty senior chief executives of News Group in the destruction and concealment particulars, as to the full contents of those emails.”
News Group Newspapers, represented in court by Clare Montgomery QC, must now supply a range of documents before a trial scheduled for October 15 begins.
The company denies the concealment and destruction of evidence, and says its email archives were erased as a matter of housekeeping, as the company was moving between premises at the time, from its former HQ at Wapping to the nearby Thomas More Square. All of its staff deny wrongdoing.
A trial of the facts is due to commence on October 15.
The case continues…
* News Group Newspapers was investigated for criminal corporate liability as part of the Operation Weeting, which ended in 2015, with prosecutors considering and rejecting potential charges for phone hacking and perverting the course of justice.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said in a prosecution for corporate liability it would have to prove the involvement of someone with the “controlling mind or will” of the company, which it said it could not do for either charge.
It said the company’s decision to settle civil cases brought against it could not be seen as actions which could pervert the course of justice, and that there was no evidence to suggest emails were deleted to pervert the course of justice.