Two more black marks for James Murdoch

December 15, 2011

By Chris Hughes
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Email at the weekends can be a bothersome distraction for busy executives trying to live a full life. For James Murdoch, a message sent to him by the editor of The News of the World tabloid one Saturday more than three years ago is proving very troublesome for his work-life balance.

Murdoch is fighting allegations that he has long known that phone hacking went beyond one rogue reporter at the Sunday tabloid, for which he was responsible as head of News Corporation’s European businesses. A problematic email sent one weekend in June 2008 has now shed new light on the matter. True, the email does not contain hard evidence that voicemail interception was common practice, or that Murdoch knew that. But it still tarnishes Murdoch’s defence that he didn’t know hacking went beyond one reporter until late 2010.

Firstly, consider the tardy disclosure of this new evidence. The email was unearthed by a special internal committee investigating the phone-hacking affair. It is astonishing that Murdoch himself didn’t divulge this much earlier given how many questions were being asked. How hard is it to sort one’s emails by sender and date and go through the ones from key players at the critical moments?

Then there’s the question of Murdoch’s behaviour on receiving the email. Circumstantial evidence supports his claim that he didn’t scroll down below the primary message, a request for a meeting about a civil phone-hacking case that was turning out “as bad as feared”. Murdoch replied within four minutes, agreeing to meet in person in the working week. So it looks like he was parking the issue.

But it should have been clear this was a serious matter which demanded more attention immediately – even if Murdoch was reading the email on his BlackBerry as he says he typically did on weekends. By finishing the email chain, Murdoch would have learnt that the plaintiff was keen to allege in court that phone-hacking was “rife” at The News of the World – never mind that there was no evidence in this particular email backing up that claim.

Some 44 percent of independent shareholders in BSkyB did not vote for Murdoch’s reelection as chairman of the satellite broadcaster. These latest twists won’t help prevent that opposition becoming the majority view among outside shareholders.

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@Muffeiy Of course James Murdoch could have genuinely missed the core content of the email, amongst maybe the 500 or more emails he is likely to receive each day. Closing a profitable newspaper like News of the World must have been a difficult decision, and part-punishment for what has unfolded. The continual harassment of James, seems almost a vendetta to me and a bit too much.

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