A key email which cast significant doubt on James Murdoch’s repeated assertions that he was never told about the true extent of phone hacking at the News of the World was kept from public disclosure last year while the media heir faced a shareholder revolt over his leadership of BSkyB.
Lawyers for News Corp’s Management and Standards Committee, the body set up to investigate wrongdoing at News International, admitted yesterday that a hard copy of the email was found on 18 November last year - 11 days before Mr Murdoch faced a crucial vote on his re-appointment as chairman of the satellite broadcaster at its annual general meeting.
In a letter to MPs, law firm Linklaters said the significance of the email sent to Mr Murdoch by former NOTW editor Colin Myler was only realised on 7 December. The company said it accepted that the importance of the message, which contained a suggestion that hacking was “rife” at the paper, “ought” to have been noticed immediately by its staff.
The control of the Murdoch dynasty over BSkyB was brought into doubt last year after independent shareholders called for James Murdoch to resign over fears that his entanglement in the inquiry into phone hacking was damaging the broadcaster’s reputation. In the event, Mr Murdoch was re-appointed despite a third of independent shareholders voting against him.
Had the email sent by Mr Myler in June 2008, which talked of a “nightmare scenario” of further phone hacking claimants, been made public around the time of its discovery by a “reviewer” in a crate of material recovered from the offices of the closed NOTW it is likely to have significantly heightened the pressure on Mr Murdoch.
Chris Bryant, the Labour MP and phone hacking victim who attended the AGM, said: “Had this information been available at the time of the AGM, I am sure more shareholders would have said ‘sorry James Murdoch but thank you very much and goodbye’.”
Writing to the House of Commons media select committee, which is investigating the phone hacking scandal, Linklaters partner John Turnbull said: “I do accept that the significance of this email ought to have been appreciated upon discovery by the Linklaters’ reviewer and it should have been drawn to the immediate attention of a partner in this firm.”
The law firm added that it was not aware of any evidence that anyone beyond its own staff and the audit company PwC was aware of the existence of the email until 7 December, when it was brought to the attention of Mr Murdoch and the select committee.
The email, which contained a chain of messages between Mr Myler and lawyers advising the NOTW, made it clear that the company was accepting it had used voicemails left for footballers’ union boss Gordon Taylor, thereby undermining its then steadfast insistence that phone hacking was restricted to a single “rogue” reporter. It also warned that the NOTW was facing a public claim that it had covered up the true extent of phone hacking.
Mr Murdoch, who has steadfastly insisted that he was not given key information that hacking was widespread at the title, insisted he had not read the full email because he received it at a weekend on his Blackberry and had replied to Mr Myler within two minutes of receiving it.
Linklaters disclosed that electronic copies of the email had also been lost from NI’s computer systems. Blaming what it said was one of “many” hardware failures on the company’s archive system, the law firm said that Mr Myler’s copy of the email was removed in March 2010.
The copy from Mr Murdoch’s inbox was deleted last January, shortly before the announcement of a new Scotland Yard investigation into the phone hacking scandal, as part of an “email stabilisation and modernisation programme”, the letter to MPs said.