Sun hacking case Day Two: How a top Murdoch executive left Buckingham Palace talking to the hand

The Duchess of Cornwall with Robert Thomson, CEO of News Corp, at a service commemorating journalists and support staff who have lost their lives, at St Bride’s Church in Fleet Street, London.

By Brian Cathcart

NEW DOCUMENTS released today in the Sun hacking litigation in London reveal the remarkable high-handedness of the Murdoch organisation in its dealings with Buckingham Palace.

A chain of high-level emails and letters between the two, which form part of the case being made on behalf of Prince Harry, includes increasingly desperate appeals by the late Queen Elizabeth’s director of communications, Sally Osman, for any kind of answer at all from Murdoch’s most senior executive.

After one silence lasting three months Robert Thomson, the CEO of the global Murdoch company, NewsCorp, finally wrote to say he was ‘genuinely sorry’, but ‘your note was lost in the mountain of memos I seem to get each day’.

Robert Thomson’s email to Sally Osman

The Palace was repeatedly told how busy Thomson was and how much he travelled, and when he himself eventually offered dates for meetings in London they clashed with very obvious royal commitments: a Commonwealth summit and Prince Harry’s wedding. (As an Australian, incidentally, Thomson was a subject of the Queen.)

The exchanges began in the summer of 2017, with Osman attempting to bring to a conclusion the matter of compensation for members of the royal family for the hacking of their phones by journalists at Rupert Murdoch’s now-defunct News of the World newspaper.

In response to her first overture, Rebekah Brooks, the CEO of Murdoch’s London operation, proposed a meeting which duly took place in London between Thomson, Osman and the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Christopher Geidt. However, the question of compensation was plainly not resolved and Osman soon found herself chasing Thomson for further discussions:

Washington, DC. 19th Nov, 2013. From left, Robert Thomson, CEO of News Corp, Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President, and Rupert Murdoch listen to United States President Barack Obama make remarks at the Wall Street Journal CEO Council annual meeting, at the Four Seasons Hotel, on November 19, 2013, in Washington, DC. Obama discussed immigration reform and the health care rollout, among other topics. Credit: Drew Angerer / Pool via CNP/dpa/Alamy Live News

‘The fact that we can have this conversation, with the Queen’s full authority and knowledge of the scale and effect of hacking and surveillance on Her family, their staff, associates, friends and family, is important with a view to resolution in the near future.’

What followed looks very like a ‘talk to the hand’ response from the Murdoch executive.

Rebekah Brooks’ email to Sally Osman

First, Rebekah Brooks stepped in to say ‘Robert is travelling a lot right now’, and someone on his staff in New York wrote: ‘Rebekah is correct in noting Robert’s travel the rest of the summer but I will ensure he sees the email and responds accordingly.’

But still there was no answer and weeks later, in September 2017, Osman wrote to Thomson and Brooks again, stating politely that ‘it would be good to get an indication as to when progress will be made on the issue we discussed some months ago’.

Brooks replied suggesting there were difficulties but added: ‘Let me check with Robert. I am with him in New York this week.’

More months passed but it appears (the timeline is ambiguous) that a second inconclusive meeting between Thomson and Osman took place late in 2017, and after it Osman wrote again: ‘I do hope we can reach and understanding . . . The Queen is aware that we have spoken.’

The Duchess of Cornwall alongside Robert Thomson (second left), CEO of News Corp, and Rebekah Brooks (fourth left), chief executive of News UK, at a service commemorating journalists and support staff who have lost their lives, at St Bride’s Church in Fleet Street, London.

This time three months passed without a response, so in February 2018 Osman re-sent the email to Thomson’s staff, asking: ‘Please can you confirm if Robert received the email below, sent after we met in London? I never received an acknowledgement or reply.’

A month later she was still chasing, by now ‘somewhat disappointed not to have received a reply’, and noting ‘an increasing sense of frustration here at the lack of response or willingness to engage’.

Again Brooks stepped in, saying: ‘I will discuss directly with him [Thomson]’ and this time it seems to have had an effect because later that same day, 2 March 2018, Thomson finally responded in an email that is worth quoting in full.

‘Sally, Genuinely sorry about the lack of a reply – your note was lost in the mountain of memos I seem to get each day. Am fresh from a Board meeting and changing planes in Dallas on the way to speak at Media Conference in Florida. My understanding was that we would wait for the civil cases to be resolved and, thankfully, we seem to be in the final phases of that process. I’m not sure of the precise timing but the UK team has the best sense of how they are unfolding. I should be in London either around March 20 or in mid-April if either of those dates works for you. All the best, Robert’

Osman then suggested another meeting but asked NewsCorp to circulate beforehand its proposal for resolving the compensation issue. A month later she had breakfast with Brooks but in May 2018, with no sign of a proposal after nearly two years of correspondence, Osman brought in the lawyers:

‘We are still very much of the mind that we don’t want this to become embroiled in legal negotiation but it would clearly assist if our lawyers now spoke to yours.’

No further exchanges have been made public but the sequence leaves little room for doubt about the disdainful attitude of Rupert Murdoch’s most senior executive to the British royal family, even in circumstances where his company had admitted illegal actions.

Nor does the two years of apparent stonewalling encourage the view that Thomson and Brooks were eager to resolve the matter – which is why these exchanges are considered relevant to this week’s court proceedings at the London High Court.

In a three-day hearing before Mr Justice Fancourt, lawyers for the Sun newspaper are attempting to have hacking claims by Prince Harry and Hugh Grant struck out on the grounds that they are too late – beyond the legal time limit. The prince’s lawyers are arguing that one reason his claim was not made earlier was delays of the kind evident in this correspondence – delays that appear to have been caused by the Sun’s owners.

Declaration of interest: the writer was previously director of Hacked Off and one of the claimants in this case, Hugh Grant, is a Hacked Off board member.

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