James Murdoch hits back over hack claims

James Murdoch clashed openly with two former senior staff today after they insisted he was told about an explosive email which proved that knowledge of phone-hacking was more widespread at the News of the World than News International had claimed.

Former legal manager Tom Crone and former News of the World editor Colin Myler both told MPs investigating the scandal that they had informed Mr Murdoch about the email.

But commenting after the hearing, Mr Murdoch, who had previously told the Commons Culture Committee he was not aware of the document, insisted: "I stand by my testimony, which is an accurate account of events."

And NoW publisher News International accused the two men of giving MPs "unclear and contradictory" evidence.

Mr Murdoch came out fighting after Mr Crone and Mr Myler were subjected to more than two hours of intense questioning by the committee, which may decide to recall Mr Murdoch for further questioning in the light of what was said.

Both men were quizzed about the so-called 'For Neville' email, which blew apart News International's stance that hacking was the fault of a single rogue reporter, former royal correspondent Clive Goodman, who was paying private investigator Glenn Mulcaire to carry it out.

Mr Crone told the committee he was "certain" he informed Mr Murdoch about the document - a transcript of hacked private information about Professional Footballers' Association chief executive Gordon Taylor - in a 15-minute meeting, also attended by Mr Myler in 2008.

The 'For Neville' email is believed to have been intended for the then NoW chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck.

Mr Crone told MPs today he could not remember whether he had shown Mr Murdoch a copy of the email during the meeting at which Mr Murdoch had authorised him to reach a settlement with Mr Taylor, who was eventually paid £425,000.

But he told MPs: "It was clear evidence that phone-hacking was taking place beyond Clive Goodman.

"It was the reason we had to settle the (Taylor) case and in order to settle the case, we had to explain the case to Mr Murdoch and get his authority to settle, so clearly it was discussed."

In a statement released after the hearing, News International said: "The company regards evidence given today as having been unclear and contradictory."

And James Murdoch, who was chief executive of News International at the time of the meeting, said: "My recollection of the meeting regarding the Gordon Taylor settlement is absolutely clear and consistent.

"I stand by my testimony, which is an accurate account of events.

"I was told by Mr Crone and Mr Myler when we met, in that short meeting, that the civil litigation related to the interception of Mr Taylor's voicemails to which Mulcaire had pleaded guilty the previous year.

"I was informed, for the first time, that there was evidence that Mulcaire had carried out this interception on behalf of the News of the World.

"It was for this reason alone that Mr Crone and Mr Myler recommended settlement. It was in this context that the evidence was discussed. They did not show me the email, nor did they refer to Neville Thurlbeck.

"Neither Mr Myler nor Mr Crone told me that wrongdoing extended beyond Mr Goodman or Mr Mulcaire.

"As I said in my testimony, there was nothing discussed in the meeting that led me to believe that a further investigation was necessary."

Evidence given by Mr Crone and Mr Myler was also criticised by some committee members.

The two men were recalled by the MPs after they publicly challenged Mr Murdoch over his knowledge of hacking.

But committee member Louise Mensch told Mr Crone today his evidence on what Mr Murdoch knew about the 'For Neville' email was "clear as mud" while the former NI chief executive had been "crystal clear".

Mrs Mensch told Mr Crone: "There's no clarity whatsoever that he was made aware that there was wider involvement at the News of the World.

"The meeting took 15 minutes, there was no subsequent review at the paper, no subsequent action. Nobody said 'Hey, this is widespread'.

"If James Murdoch was sitting here, wouldn't he be able to say 'I've been totally clear, they are completely muddled ... I stand by my testimony'."

But Mr Crone said it was "absolutely inconceivable" that it had not been explained to Mr Murdoch that the email proved the News of the World was implicated in the Taylor hacking.

Mr Myler was repeatedly pressed to say whether it was made "absolutely clear" to Mr Murdoch that other journalists were involved.

He said: "Mr Murdoch was the chief executive of the company. He's experienced. I am experienced in what I do, Mr Crone is experienced as a legal manager. I think everybody perfectly understood the seriousness and the significance of what we were discussing."

In his evidence to MPs today Mr Crone insisted there had not been a "cover-up" by the company, pointing out that the 'For Neville' email had been passed to NI by the Metropolitan Police after it was seized from Mulcaire, who was jailed with Goodman in 2007 for hacking into the phone messages of members of the royal household.

A confidentiality clause included in the settlement was insisted upon by Mr Taylor's lawyers to avoid sensitive information about his personal life becoming public, said Mr Crone.

In a bruising clash with committee member Tom Watson - the Labour MP who has led the charge over phone-hacking - Mr Crone denied that Mr Murdoch demanded a confidentiality clause and authorised the large financial settlement in order to prevent the exposure of "widespread criminality" at the News of the World.

The former legal chief said his priority was to avoid cases being launched by four other individuals whose phones Mulcaire had admitted hacking.

"The imperative or the priority at the time was to settle this case, get rid of it, contain the situation as far as four other litigants were concerned and get on with our business," said Mr Crone.

Mr Crone denied misleading the committee during a previous appearance in 2009 about the significance of the 'For Neville' email or about the question of whether News International demanded confidentiality over the Taylor settlement.

"We did not underestimate or mislead you in any way whatsoever about the importance of that email," Mr Crone told committee chairman John Whittingdale.

After demanding that he read out a transcript of his 2009 evidence in which he denied that the company used the settlement in the hope of maintaining secrecy over phone-hacking, Mr Watson asked Mr Crone: "Are you misleading us now or did you mislead us in 2009?"

Mr Crone, who quit earlier this year amid the furore over the phone-hacking scandal, replied that there was "a difference between secrecy and confidentiality".

Under close questioning from the committee, Mr Crone denied having promised Mr Goodman that he would keep his job if he avoided implicating the company.

It was Andy Coulson - who was editor of the Sunday tabloid at the time of Goodman's crimes and went on to serve as David Cameron's director of communications at 10 Downing Street - who sought to ensure that the reporter was not sacked, he said.

Mr Crone also defended the company's decision to pay for Mr Goodman's legal defence as "the proper, decent and correct thing to do".

But he said he had nothing to do with the decision to continue to pay him a salary during his jail sentence or to give him a £240,000 pay-off after his dismissal.

Mr Watson told him that his answers suggested that he did not regard Goodman's eavesdropping activities as "gross misconduct".

"You thought it was a reporter's job at the News of the World," said the Labour MP. "As far as you were concerned, the whole problem was that he was caught.

"That's why you told Goodman he could have his job back if he didn't implicate the newspaper... You promised him his job in order to suppress evidence of criminality at the News of the World and that is why James Murdoch sanctioned the payment to Gordon Taylor and why you agreed to pay Glenn Mulcaire's legal fees."

Mr Crone responded that there was "no truth at all" in Mr Watson's claims.


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