Leading article: A growing stench of lies and cover-up

Sunday 23 October 2011 04:12

Rupert Murdoch has closed down the News of the World, the newspaper at the centre of the phone-hacking scandal. But the media tycoon has not managed to close down the story. Yesterday the brutal spotlight fell on the behaviour of News International, the UK subsidiary of Mr Murdoch's global media empire.

News International insisted for many years that phone hacking was not a systemic practice at the News of the World. In 2007, when the newspaper's royal reporter, Clive Goodman, was convicted of illegally intercepting the voicemails of Prince William, the company declared that Goodman was a single rogue reporter and that editors had not approved, or even known, what he was doing.

Two years later, when fresh allegations surfaced that hacking at the paper was much more widespread than this, News International held an internal inquiry and this, we were informed, discovered no evidence of wider wrongdoing. Several senior executives of News International – including the former executive chairman, Les Hinton, and the News of the World editor, Colin Myler – have also appeared before Parliamentary committees over the years to stress that phone hacking was the work of a single journalist.

But yesterday the existence was reported of an internal News International dossier, compiled in 2007, indicating that hacking was "more widespread than previously admitted" at the News of the World. In other words, this dossier suggests that senior News International executives may have knowingly misled the public and Parliament when they claimed that phone hacking was a strictly isolated phenomenon. The dossier also apparently indicates that Andy Coulson, a former News of the World editor who went on to become the Prime Minister's communications chief, may have authorised the payment of bribes to the police.

It has been reported that James Murdoch, the media tycoon's son, who was appointed executive chairman of News International in 2007, was unaware of the existence of this dossier. But even if true, this raises some troubling questions. In April 2008, Mr Murdoch personally authorised a significant out-of-court settlement to Gordon Taylor of the Professional Footballers' Association, who claimed that his mobile phone messages had been hacked. What questions did Mr Murdoch ask his subordinates about the truth of that allegation before signing off on the payment? And which executives were responsible for keeping their boss in the dark? Whatever the answers, it now appears that some senior figures at News International may have lied about phone hacking and also suppressed evidence of a criminal conspiracy to bribe police officers. They might also have allowed David Cameron to employ Mr Coulson knowing that he had broken the law.

The broadcasting regulator Ofcom declared last week that it will look into the question of whether Rupert Murdoch's News Corp empire is a "fit and proper" owner of the broadcaster BSkyB. But now another question must surely be asked: is an organisation that appears to have covered up evidence of corruption and illegality fit and proper to run any part of the media in Britain?

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