Spying orders 'came from the top'

Senior lawyer and mystery executive were behind surveillance of rivals' solicitors

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The Independent Online

The senior lawyer of the News of the World and another unnamed executive commissioned the surveillance of two solicitors bringing phone hacking claims against the Sunday tabloid as part of a campaign of snooping that also included senior MPs investigating the scandal, James Murdoch confirmed yesterday.

In some of his most explosive testimony to the House of Commons Media Select Committee, the once heir apparent to the Murdoch empire said that Tom Crone, the former head of legal affairs for the paper, and a second "News of the World employee at the time" had been responsible for asking for Mark Lewis and Charlotte Harris, who were acting for a number of prominent hacking victims, to be watched by private detectives.

The Independent revealed in September that the News of the World had targeted three solicitors, including Mr Lewis and Ms Harris, by obtaining a dossier recording their movements and carrying details of their private lives.

Mr Murdoch also revealed that unnamed individuals in News International had ordered private investigators to follow members of the Media Select Committee, which was investigating voicemail interception at the NOTW, including Tom Watson, the Labour MP who has been one of the most dogged campaigners on the hacking scandal.

Admitting that the surveillance of the politicians looking into his company had been wrong, Mr Murdoch said: "It is appalling. It is something I would never condone, the company should never condone, something that should never have happened and was shocking when I found out... I apologise unreservedly for that."

Asked whether the following of lawyers had been authorised within News International, Mr Murdoch said: "Mr Crone and the other person did not do that with any authority or knowledge by me. I would never condone that behaviour."

Despite The Independent's revelation in September, which brought an admission from NI that the surveillance had not been carried out with the authorisation of any "current executive" at the company, Mr Murdoch insisted that he had only become aware of the snooping in recent "days or weeks".

The allegation that Mr Crone was responsible for ordering the surveillance of Mr Lewis and Ms Harris in May 2010 in an apparent attempt to establish whether they were in a relationship potentially raises serious questions about the newspaper lawyer's previous testimony in which he said he had not used private investigators "in the last few years".

Asked in September by Mr Watson during a select committee hearing whether he had ever ordered surveillance, Mr Crone initially denied ever doing so. When asked if he had received or commissioned reports on lawyers bringing claims against the NOTW, he added: "I may have in litigation – certainly not in the last few years, but a long time ago maybe – I probably did in fact use private investigators on various things like tracing, maybe a bit of surveillance... It is not unusual for lawyers to use private investigators."

It emerged this week that the surveillance of Mr Lewis by a former specialist police officer had involved watching his teenage daughter and his former wife as they went shopping near their Manchester home. Mr Lewis, whose clients include the family of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, said he intended to sue NI for damages over the surveillance.

Mr Murdoch, who echoed a statement from his own company by saying the surveillance of the lawyers and MPs had been "inappropriate", pointedly failed to disclose the identity of the second executive involved in commissioning the activity against the two solicitors.

Where they failed: The unanswered questions

While the select committee, which includes Tom Watson and Louise Mensch asked James Murdoch some tough questions, here are others that went unasked

* Why did you not ask to see the legal advice of Michael Silverleaf QC, when you knew it existed, and it was the key factor in your decision to pay £725,000 damages and legal costs to Gordon Taylor?

* Why, if you weren't told that phone hacking was more widespread, did you agree to such a large pay-out?

* Have you sought medical advice about your memory problems?

* Who is the second executive that you say commissioned private detectives to trail phone-hacking victims' lawyers to dig up dirt on behalf of News International?

* Given your lack of curiosity about why you were paying out six-figure sums to hacking victims, are you a fit and proper person to run a company?

* Did you authorise a severance payment to Rebekah Brooks when she resigned and was subsequently arrested, and was it in excess of £1.5m?

* Have you sought and received assurances from executives at The Sun that phone hacking was not used at that paper?

* Did your sister, as has been reported, lobby your father to have you removed from your post?

* Do you think what you have said will convince shareholders of BSkyB you are capable of running the company?