Rupert Murdoch's own lawyers launched an extraordinary attack on him and his son yesterday by accusing News International of misleadingly using their advice to give his company a clean bill of health on phone hacking.
Harbottle & Lewis, which has been criticised for its examination of NI emails which allegedly contained "blindingly obvious" evidence of criminality, turned on James Murdoch by saying it was "hard to credit" his explanation to MPs that the law firm's findings justified its claim that phone hacking had been fully investigated at the News of the World.
The blue-chip law firm was publicly accused by Rupert Murdoch of having made a "major mistake" when it said it could find no proof of wrongdoing beyond a single "rogue reporter" when it was asked to conduct an internal review.
In its first public comment on its role in the hacking scandal, the law firm said in evidence to the Commons media select committee that it had in fact been given a very narrow remit when it was approached by NI in 2007 to examine 300 internal emails from six NOTW executives for evidence that illegal voicemail interception went beyond disgraced royal editor Clive Goodman.
A subsequent letter from Harbottle & Lewis, which stated it had found no "reasonable evidence" that any of the executives had known about phone hacking, was provided to MPs in 2009 as part of NI's claims that its internal inquiries into the "dark arts" of newsgathering had been exhaustive.
In his evidence to MPs last month, James Murdoch said the company had relied on its external lawyers' findings when it put forward its now-abandoned defence that voicemail interception was restricted to a single "rogue reporter" in the shape of Mr Goodman. But the law firm, released from a duty of client confidentiality last month, said yesterday NI's use of its advice relating to an unfair dismissal claim by Mr Goodman was "self-serving".
In its letter to the committee, Harbottle & Lewis said: "There was absolutely no question of the firm being asked to provide News International with a clean bill of health which it could deploy years later in wholly different contexts for wholly different purposes."
In an interview with his own Wall Street Journal in July, Rupert Murdoch said Harbottle & Lewis had been taken on to find out "what the hell was going on" at the NOTW and the law firm had made a "major mistake" in its findings. Harbottle & Lewis said this assertion by the media mogul was "inaccurate and misleading".
In its support, Jon Chapman, NI's former director of legal affairs, in a letter to the select committee, said: "To my knowledge, the 2007 email review was never intended to be general internal inquiry or investigation into the issue of voicemail interception at NOTW. To characterise and hold it out as such now... seems to be very misleading."