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Simon Carr

The Sketch: Buy jailed Goodman's silence? Nooo...

The story so far (I'd forgotten everything except that there was a story). Major news organisation pays hacker to get into the phones of princes and celebrities. They then publish the rubbish they find in scoops and spreads and exclusives. The hacker goes to jail. So does the News of the World "royal editor". Many investigations later the paper concludes that their convicted royal editor was the only one involved.

The other story is the one John Whittingdale's committee is trying to establish. They think hacking was more widespread in the paper, and that payments were made to keep the convicts from spilling the beans.

It's not easy because all the top executives and legal advisers of the paper fall back on Fleet Street's Fifth Amendment. "I don't know, and though you know I do know I say I don't know that I know and you can't prove I don't know that I don't know." That's the basic version, there are more sophisticated variations.

They've had them all in. This time it was Les Hinton, a pleasant silverback of the high plateaux. Previously the executive chairman of some News International thing now with Dow Jones. It's wonderful how far you can get knowing so little. He was appearing by video link from New York. What is your name, for the stenographer? "I really don't recall." That isn't a transcription, more of an accurate translation.

They began on the long trek to map the outer regions of Mr Hinton's ignorance. It was continental.

You sacked a man for gross misconduct and then paid him off for wrongful dismissal. Why?

"It was the advice I was given." And who gave you that advice? "I really don't remember."

And why did you settle before the tribunal hearing?

"The reason we settled was that there were grounds for settling."

Who advised the settling?

"Several senior people."

What were their names?

"I don't remember."

OK. The royal editor commissioned the royal phone tapping, but who was responsible for commissioning the celebrity phone tapping?

"I don't follow the logic."

And when it was explained, in order to suggest phone hacking was not merely one rogue employee, we got: "What was that? It's a bad line. You dropped out for a moment? Oh, I, I, uh huh they, look, they..."

Paul Farrelly produced a piece of news. Maybe we should have started with that. He has it on "reliable authority" (I suppose from someone who has see the document) that Clive Goodman (convicted royal editor) has a settlement contract with the News of the World. Of course Mr Hinton couldn't talk about that (it's got a confidentiality clause as long as Moby Dick) but Farrelly said it contained an indemnity promising to to pay any legal costs Goodman might be liable for in the future.

Mr Hinton said he wasn't aware of it. But he may become so. The only reason the hacked celebs haven't sued Goodman is that he hasn't got any money. But if News International is standing behind him there is a fabulous pot of gold to be had.

This is all very good for the Committee.