News International requested the deletion of hundreds of thousands of emails from its IT system in the past 18 months, MPs learnt last night.
The revelation prompted fears that vital evidence may have been lost to authorities investigating the phone-hacking scandal.
The extent of deletions emerged in a letter to the Commons Home Affairs Committee from lawyers acting for a technology company, HCL, that manages data for News International. The Reading-based law firm Stuart Benson detailed nine instances since April 2010 when the news group – while Rebekah Brooks was chief executive – asked for deletions.
The first three came within weeks of a Commons committee having castigated News International executives for "collective amnesia" over the extent of the News of the World's hacking.
In one request, News International asked for more than 200,000 pieces of correspondence to be wiped.
MP Keith Vaz, chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, said: "I'm very surprised so many emails and information appear to have been deleted since the start of this year.
"This will raise further questions which I'm sure we will want to probe further. "But it's surprising such a large number of messages have been deleted." The committee may ask HCL staff to give further evidence, he said. All of News International's requests may have been due to standard IT network management practice. But similar businesses said last night they kept email archives much longer.
Scotland Yard is likely to be angry at any attempt to interfere with the archive, particularly since January this year when the media group said it was doing all in its power to co-operate with the inquiries. Three deletion requests came this year.
Stuart Benson wrote to the MPs' committee: "It is of course a matter entirely for News International, the police and your committee as to whether there was any other agenda or subtext when issues of deletion arose and that is a matter on which my client cannot comment and something which you will no doubt explore direct with News International."
News International made no comment on the letter last night.Reuse content