Evidence of a News Corp coverup mounts
By Nicholas Wapshott
All opinions expressed are his own.
By this stage of the summer, Rupert Murdoch and his family would normally be relaxing on his yacht, The Rosehearty. But any hopes the magnate might have entertained that August would bring respite from the scandal that has engulfed his empire have been shattered by the release of two letters to the parliamentary committee investigating phone hacking by his papers. The excuse Murdoch gave to Parliament that he knew nothing of the wrongdoing is increasingly hard to credit. The blame for the routine invasion of privacy by his papers is now inching closer to Murdoch himself.
The first letter, from News of the World royal reporter Clive Goodman, who became the patsy for the affair, gives the lie to the suggestion to Parliament by Murdoch’s most trusted retainer Les Hinton that phone hacking was the work of a single rogue reporter. In the letter, Goodman lets slip that “the actions … were carried out with the full knowledge and support” of some of the paper’s other journalists and that “other members of staff were carrying out the same illegal procedures.” The names of those others have been redacted for now, at the request of Scotland Yard, for fear of jeopardizing a prosecution.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s judgment is also called into question by the letter. The socially remote Cameron felt he could not connect with humdrum voters and hired Andy Coulson, top editor at the News of the World when the hacking took place, to explain his government’s policies in language the ordinary person could understand. Cameron says he hired the tainted Coulson because Coulson denied knowing of the illegality going on under his nose. But Goodman reports that hacking “was widely discussed in the daily editorial conference, until explicit reference to it was banned by the Editor [Coulson].” The “smoking gun” letter makes Cameron look naïve and gullible for being taken in so easily.
As in the Watergate affair, the coverup is becoming as important to understanding the culture within Murdoch’s business, and the failure of corporate governance by the board, as the crimes themselves. The Commons media committee received two copies of the Goodman letter, one from News International lawyers Harbottle & Lewis, who were released from their confidentiality after sharp questioning of James Murdoch by committee members Paul Farrelly and Tom Watson. News International executives repeatedly tried to have Watson removed from the committee, and when they failed ran vicious stories about him.
While Harbottle & Lewis redacted a single line from the Goodman letter, at the request of the police, a second copy was issued by News International, on the instructions of James Murdoch. This version not only redacts the names of other employees implicated in the crime but also blots out the sentence saying Coulson openly spoke about the hacking in editorial meetings. Further, it blanks the section that shows that Murdoch’s company wanted to buy Goodman’s silence: “[H.R. director] Tom Crone and the Editor [Coulson] promised on many occasions that I could come back to a job at the newspaper if I did not implicate the paper or any of its staff in my mitigation plea. I did not, and I expect the paper to honour its promise to me.”
A second letter also provides evidence of a coverup of the original crime. At the Commons hearing in July, questioning centred on what Rupert and James Murdoch knew about a Harbottle & Lewis investigation into thousands of e-mails that showed extensive use of hacking by Murdoch journalists in which the legal firm appeared to clear the company of permitting wrongdoing. James Murdoch used the letter to suggest that he had no reason to believe criminality was widespread. Released from its confidentiality, however, Harbottle & Lewis has now revealed that it was never asked to comment on whether they found that the hacking was prevalent, only whether Goodman had been ordered to hack by others. “There was absolutely no question of the firm being asked to provide News International with a clean bill of health which it could deploy years later in wholly different contexts for wholly different purposes,” it writes. “Nor was it being given a general retainer, as Mr. Rupert Murdoch asserted it was, ‘to find out what the hell was going on.’” They found James Murdoch’s attempt to hide behind their letter “hard to credit” and Rupert Murdoch’s assertion “inaccurate and misleading.”
The Murdoch scandal has often been likened to a Shakespearean drama, with the old bull Murdoch portraying himself in Parliament as a Lear-like, borderline crazy character failing to keep his children and his extensive retinue under control. Those who have worked closely with Murdoch believe this a travesty. For them, Murdoch is more like Uncle Junior in “The Sopranos” who feigned madness to avoid prosecution. But what emerges from the new letters is that old man Murdoch more closely resembles Richard Nixon than any fictional figure, his brooding presence and paranoia providing an atmosphere of intimidation that permitted chicanery and skulduggery so long as he was not directly implicated. And, like Nixon, it is the orchestration of the coverup that now links the News Corp boss to the crimes committed in his name.
Nicholas Wapshott’s “Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics” is published by W.W.Norton in October. To read an extract, access https://sites.google.com/site/wapshottkeyneshayek/.
PHOTO: BSkyB Chairman James Murdoch (L) and his father, News Corp Chief Executive and Chairman Rupert Murdoch, appear in images made from television as they are questioned by parliamentary committee on phone hacking at Portcullis House in London July 19, 2011. REUTERS/Parbul TV via Reuters TV