Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson have both been cautioned by police investigating a possible corporate prosecution of Rupert Murdoch’s UK media empire for hacking and bribing offences, it can be disclosed today
The Independent can reveal the two former News International editors were formally warned by the Metropolitan Police in May 2012 during an investigation into the corporate liabilities of the newspaper group – recently rebranded News UK.
The corporate investigation is separate to the individual prosecutions which this week saw Coulson found guilty of conspiring to intercept voicemail, and Ms Brooks cleared of all charges.
It is understood that Scotland Yard’s inquiry believed more than two years ago that the UK subsidiary was suspected of corporate liabilities, which could have devastating consequences for the ability of the parent company News Corp to operate in the United States.
Yesterday, it was reported that detectives also want to interview Rupert Murdoch.
Coulson, a former News of the World editor who later became David Cameron’s head spin doctor, was convicted of conspiracy to hack phones on Tuesday and is due to be sentenced next week.
The downfall of the former showbiz columnist has raised fresh questions over his appointment at the Prime Minister’s side in Downing Street after failing to be properly vetted by the security services.
It is understood that police believed they had established corporate liability offences more than two years ago – yet the Metropolitan Police has still not passed a file on the company to the CPS.
Tom Watson, the campaigning Labour MP, said: “It has now been revealed that a number of executives have been interviewed under caution, and now that the individual cases have been resolved, I am sure the Metropolitan Police will apply their customary urgency and pass their work on potential corporate charges to the CPS.”
There could be further trouble for another former News of the World employee. The BBC’s Panorama programme has reported that private eye Glenn Mulcaire, a convicted hacker, could be prosecuted for allegedly finding out the new identities given to four notorious offenders for their own protection – including Robert Thompson, one of toddler James Bulger’s killers – by hacking phones.
Last year, The Independent revealed the investigation into News UK as a “corporate suspect” had caused pandemonium at the upper echelons of the Murdoch media empire.
Shortly after the company was informed it was under suspicion in May 2012, executives in America ordered that the company dramatically scale back its co-operation with the Metropolitan Police.
A News Corp analysis of the effects of a corporate charge, produced in New York, said the consequences could “kill the corporation and 46,000 jobs would be in jeopardy”.
Lawyers for the media giant pleaded with the Metropolitan Police and the Crown Prosecution Service not to prosecute the company, saying it would not be in the “public interest” to put thousands of jobs at risk.
Gerson Zweifach, the group general counsel of News Corp, flew in to London for emergency talks with the Metropolitan Police in 2012. According to Scotland Yard, he told police: “Crappy governance is not a crime. The downstream effects of a prosecution would be apocalyptic. The US authorities’ reaction would put the whole business at risk, as licences would be at risk.”
Lawyers for the Metropolitan Police identified News International as “suspects” as long ago as October 2011.
But the company did not appear to become aware of its status as a potential “corporate defendant” until April 2012 when detectives asked NI’s Management and Standards Committee for “minutes of board meetings”. The request triggered behind-the-scenes negotiations which eventually led to former Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers formally writing to the company a month later.
Shortly after Akers formally informed the company that it was a corporate suspect, Rupert Murdoch announced he was splitting the global empire he spent six decades building up into one of the most powerful organisations in the world.
The 83-year-old hived off the highly profitable television and film assets, including 21st Century Fox and Fox News, into a separate entity from the troubled newspaper group, in what was widely perceived as an attempt to isolate any contagion from the phone-hacking scandal.
Ex-News International chief executive Les Hinton was interviewed under caution in September 2012. Police did not request him back for further questioning.
A Scotland Yard spokesperson said: “We are not prepared to discuss this.”
Lawyers for Ms Brooks did not respond to requests for comment.
Sentencing hearings on Coulson, and five other former News International employees who pleaded guilty to phone hacking before the trial proceedings began, will begin on Monday.
And now for the play
The National Theatre has responded to the phone hacking trial with a satire about the press, politicians and police that opens on Monday.
“Great Britain”, starring Billie Piper as a tabloid editor, was announced at a press conference yesterday.
“We were advised it would be better not to open the play while the trial was in progress,” said National Theatre director Sir Nicholas Hytner.
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