Computers used by members of the News of the World staff were destroyed by putting them "through a grinder" last autumn at a time when News International was being sued for phone hacking and new questions were being asked about the extent of illegal news gathering at the Sunday tabloid, a court has heard.
The equipment, including most computers used by employees at the now-closed title, were "taken out and smashed up" during a phased move from NI's Wapping headquarters in east London to a nearby office building at Thomas More Square.
The shredding of hard drives would have happened long after senior NOTW executives were made aware that phone hacking had spread beyond a single "rogue" reporter. In a legal opinion submitted to the paper in 2008, its own QC Michael Silverleaf warned that there was also "overwhelming evidence" that senior journalists had made "illegal enquiries".
It is understood that NI regards the decision to destroy the computers to have been part of a routine updating of the company's computing hardware. Key documents, including internal emails, are understood to have been backed up and preserved on remote servers.
Jeremy Reed, the barrister representing a number of phone-hacking victims who have been selected as test cases in civil damages claims to be heard in January, told a pre-trial hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice in London that the destruction of the computers meant that the only NOTW computer still existing from prior to last autumn belonged to the showbusiness reporter Dan Evans.
Mr Evans was sued along with News Group Newspapers, publishers of the now-closed Murdoch tabloid, by the fashion designer Kelly Hoppen over the interception of messages left on her phone between 2004 and 2006.
The disclosure of the computer destruction came as Mr Justice Vos, the judge presiding over the civil claims, threw out an attempt by NI to limit the amount of damages that could be awarded against the company.
Mr Silverleaf, appearing yesterday for Rupert Murdoch's British newspaper company, said the damages cases risked going over much of the material that will be heard by the ongoing Leveson Inquiry into press standards and that airing the same information risked amounting to a "witchhunt" or "crusade" against NI.
Judge Vos rejected the claim, saying the cases being brought by claimants, including the actor Jude Law and the Labour MP Chris Bryant, were about deciding "the damages you must fairly pay".
The court was told that evidence had also emerged that Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator used by the NOTW to carry out phone hacking, was also involved in "pinging" or tracking the location of mobile phones. Hugh Tomlinson QC, the lead counsel for hacking victims, said Mr Mulcaire was apparently charging £300 to carry out the technique whose use is restricted to police and the security services.