NOTW lawyer: 'Rogue reporter' claims were 'erroneous from the outset'

 

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The Independent Online

The News of the World's former legal manager told the Leveson Inquiry today he feared the paper's line that phone hacking was limited to one "rogue reporter" would "come back to bite" it.

Tom Crone said he thought the claim that the practice was restricted to ex-royal editor Clive Goodman was "erroneous from the outset".

He agreed that executives at the Sunday tabloid's publisher, News International, hoped the scandal would "go away" after Goodman and private detective Glenn Mulcaire were jailed in 2007 for illegally intercepting royal aides' voicemails.

Robert Jay QC, counsel to the inquiry, asked him: "Were you concerned at least it had the appearance of cover-up? There was a risk it would come back to bite the company, as indeed it has?"

The lawyer, who worked in-house for the News of the World's publisher from 1985 until this year, replied: "I thought it would probably come back to bite the people who were saying it, which was the company, sure."

Mr Crone said he formed the impression from Goodman and Mulcaire's sentencing hearing at the Old Bailey that there was "more than circumstantial evidence" for suggestions that other News International employees hacked phones as well.

"I can't remember when and by whom the rogue reporter explanation was first put out, but I was of the view that it was erroneous from the outset," he said in a statement.

He said it was clear that police had carried out a "very, very thorough investigation" into phone hacking but there was no indication in early 2007 that they wanted to interview anyone else at the News of the World beyond Goodman.

"I think the line was taken that this was the worst thing that had happened in the newspaper's history, perhaps, almost certainly, and the company's primary thought was to draw a line under it, especially since the police didn't look as if they were taking it further in any other direction," he said.

Mr Jay asked him: "Did you have any sense, Mr Crone, that you were encountering a tendency in News International to hope that this would all go away and therefore keep it quiet?"

The News International lawyer replied: "I think that was everyone's hope, to be perfectly honest."

Mr Crone also told the inquiry that Andy Coulson, who resigned as News of the World editor after Goodman was jailed, wanted to keep the former royal editor on at the paper in a role that did not involve interacting with the public.

Mr Crone said before Goodman's arrest he only advised News International on phone hacking once, in 2004.

The lawyer agreed that he was keen to settle quickly a claim brought by Professional Footballers' Association chief executive Gordon Taylor over the hacking of his phone by the News of the World.

"Just to sort the matter out and hopefully put that one to bed because I was conscious there was a good chance that other litigation would spring up," he told the inquiry.

Mr Crone said he did not deal with issues about articles raised via the Press Complaints Commission.

He said: "I'm not a guardian of ethics, really. I know that sounds callous, but my job was to advise on the legal risk, the law in relation to a particular situation that the newspaper was in or thinking of getting in."

Meanwhile, a solicitor for the News of the World today defended placing two lawyers for alleged phone hacking victims under surveillance to check whether they were having a relationship.

Julian Pike, a partner with law firm Farrer and Co, told the inquiry it was "perfectly legitimate" to investigate Mark Lewis and Charlotte Harris.

But he said he did not condone the fact that a private detective filmed the two lawyers' families, including their young children.

Mr Pike said Mr Lewis and Ms Harris were put under surveillance last year over concerns they were leaking confidential information they had gained from acting for phone hacking claimants.

He told the inquiry: "Here we were faced with what we perceived to be some very significant breaches of confidentiality over a significant period of time.

"The issue was we wanted to look at getting to the bottom of them and dig around and put together a jigsaw of what was going on.

"In that context it was a perfectly legitimate exercise to carry out the inquiries that were carried out through the firm of investigators that we instructed.

"In terms of carrying out a surveillance operation on Mr Lewis and Ms Harris, that also was a perfectly legitimate exercise to do.

"Carrying out exercises in relation to Mr Lewis's family, I would not condone at all."

He added: "I agree clearly things have gone beyond that which was legitimate, but there was a perfectly legitimate exercise being carried out and clearly someone has strayed beyond that remit."

Mr Jay said to him: "You are investigating two lawyers. The purpose of the investigation is to see whether there is a relationship between them."

Mr Pike replied: "If I was faced with the same circumstances today, I would have very little trouble doing it again because it's a perfectly legitimate exercise."

Prime Minister David Cameron set up the Leveson Inquiry in July in response to disclosures that the News of the World commissioned a private detective to hack murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler's phone after she disappeared in 2002.

The first part of the inquiry, sitting at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, is looking at the culture, practices and ethics of the press in general and is due to produce a report by next September.

The second part, examining the extent of unlawful activities by journalists, will not begin until detectives have completed their investigation into alleged phone hacking and corrupt payments to police, and any prosecutions have been concluded.

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