By Graham Johnson
Editor, Byline Investigates
RUPERT Murdoch’s top British in house lawyer found emails proving widespread phone hacking at the News of the World at least a week earlier than the company previously admitted, the High Court in London has heard.
The date of the messages, which were subsequently handed to police, is significant because it could explain why News International (NI) began destroying evidence of wrongdoing – and how it had time to do so – as the phone hacking scandal was exploding in 2011, say lawyers for alleged victims suing the company.
The emails – only recently disclosed by NI – show its former Director of Legal Affairs Jon Chapman knew about the criminality at least on January 6, 2011, rather than January 14 – until now the key date in the claimants’ case alleging Murdoch’s UK newspaper corporation hid, or purged itself of, large amounts of potentially damning evidence.
Claimants’ Barrister David Sherborne said: “They show that the correct start date when Mr Chapman was aware of these criminal activities was 6 January 2011, rather than 14 January 2011, and that therefore Mr Chapman had these highly incriminating emails prior to the targeted deletions in mid-January.”
The company has always maintained the discovery of phone hacking extending far beyond “one rogue reporter” – its official defence for five years previously – and the deletion of millions of emails from its archive, both in mid-January 2011, were unconnected events.
IT managers at NI subsidiary News Group Newspapers (NGN) have previously stated to the High Court that the mass email ‘migrations’ were part of an ongoing data streamlining project. Systems managers said the ‘archiving’ had nothing to do with the sudden discovery of other emails, which pointed to criminal activity.
They claimed the emergence of the ‘incriminating’ emails did not appear to significantly pre-date the deletions – and thus the former could not have been the reason for the latter.
However, the emerging evidence has come to light which, claimants say, provides evidence for precisely the opposite supposition.
NGN is being accused of a major cover-up of criminal activity through its ‘concealment and destruction’ of evidence at Murdoch’s powerful UK tabloid The Sun, and its now-closed sister title the News of the World.
The latest exhibit in the one of the country’s biggest legal sagas – an email sent to News International’s top lawyer Jon Chapman on January 6, 2011 – was only recently revealed in the long-running litigation.
In a legal document, barrister for the Claimants, David Sherborne, said: “Given its obvious relevance, the fact that the Jan 6 email and its attachments have not been disclosed to date in this litigation is deplorable.
‘They show that the correct start date when Mr Chapman was aware of these criminal activities was 6 January 2011, rather than 14 January 2011, and that therefore Mr Chapman had these highly incriminating emails prior to the targeted deletions in mid-January.”
The key characters involved were Jon Chapman, Director of Legal Affairs at News International, which owned News Group Newspapers, and IT executive Chris Williams.
Tom Crone, the top in-house lawyer for the News of the World and Ian Edmondson, the paper’s news editor were also involved.
The story starts when Edmondson was suspended, after being accused of phone hacking in actress Sienna Miller’s civil claim, in late 2010.
His suspension triggered an internal investigation.
In court papers, Mr. Sherborne explained there is “an email dated 6 January 2011 from Chris Williams to Jon Chapman/Tom Crone which fundamentally alters the Claimants’ previous understanding of the concealment chronology in January 2011.”
He added that “the Claimants had previously understood that it was events that had taken place on or after January 14, 2011, which led to the targeted deletions carried out by NGN in mid-January, including the emails of senior executives.”
After discovering the emails on or after January 14, it had been the case of the defendants, that Mr. Chapman then had enough evidence to sack Ian Edmondson, and then hand the emails to the police on January 26, 2011.
However, Mr. Sherborne said that Mr. Chapman had this evidence at least six days earlier – which raised the question why it took until January 26 to act, and what had been in done in the intervening fortnight.
The allegations were made at a High Court hearing last month on Tuesday January 22 2019.
The Pre-Trial Review was the latest hearing in long-running litigation in which alleged victims of phone hacking are suing NGN.
Five victims had been preparing to go to trial this month – animal rights activist Heather Mills, her sister Fiona, actress Liz Hurley, singer Elton John and his film producer husband David Furnish.
However, the trial will now not go ahead as the claimants have since agreed to an out-of-court settlement.
In addition to allegations that the five claimants were hacked by The Sun as well as the News of the World, their lawyers also claim that newspaper executives deliberately conspired to cover-up the crime.
The victims’ lawyers allege that the cover-up was taking place, after they and The Guardian newspaper began investigating phone hacking after 2007, and even after police finally launched a proper investigation January 2011.
NGN deny or ‘do not admit’ any cover-up.
More follows in Part 2 of the court report about the ‘concealment and destruction’ case.