GIVEN the choice of portraying himself as either ignorant or complicit, James Murdoch again took the lesser of two evils this week. He hadn’t properly read a crucial email about phone-hacking that was sent to him in 2008, he wrote to British MPs.
He read the top of the email but not the chain of exchanges below it, which talked of allegations that hacking was “rife” at the News of the World and of a “nightmare scenario” having developed. This was because he received the email at the weekend on his BlackBerry, he explained.
What’s more, according to his letter to the House of Commons select committee on media, in a meeting about the email three days later he again failed to grasp what the two senior executives claim they told him: that phone hacking at the News of the World was not limited to a single “rogue reporter”, and that Mr Murdoch needed to sign off on a huge compensation payout to a hacking victim who had evidence of this.
It seems Mr Murdoch, executive chairman of News International, was one of the last to know of widespread use of “the dark arts” in the newsroom that was then a central — and most profitable — part of his British fiefdom.
Light was shone on more of those dark arts this week as inquiries in different arenas, including two civil suits, a House of Lords committee and the Leveson inquiry on press standards, continued to dig into the former tabloid’s dung heap.
A front-page “kiss and tell” scoop was worth £20,000 ($A31,000) to the source, but this had risen to six figures for news of an alleged extramarital affair between soccer player David Beckham and his personal assistant — something that was deservedly exposed because he had traded on being a wholesome family man, former chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck told Lord Justice Leveson.
Mr Thurlbeck wrote to women involved in a sado-masochistic orgy with former formula one boss Max Mosley and threatened to name them if they did not give him firsthand accounts of the event (“pretty close” to blackmail, admitted the former legal manager for News International, Tom Crone, under questioning).
The inquiry also heard a private detective was ordered to camouflage himself as a journalist to disguise his association with the paper. This was because it did not want to be seen to be using investigators after the jailing in 2007 of a private detective and the paper’s royal reporter for hacking the royal family.
Private eye Derek Webb told the inquiry Mr Thurlbeck in 2009 asked him to give up his investigator’s licence, change his firm’s name from Shadow Watch to Derek Webb Media, and even join the National Union of Journalists, which he did by filling out a form. His duties in this new guise? “Surveillance,” he said.
But one important charge against the News of the World was undermined this week. In its expose of the scandal earlier this year, the Guardian newspaper had claimed reporters had deleted voicemail messages on the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, giving her family false hope that she was still alive. The allegation helped fuel a wave of public revulsion that led to the paper’s closure.
It has now been revealed that false hope came before the paper asked a private investigator to target Milly’s phone, with police suggesting the messages might have been deleted automatically.
The editor of The Sun, Richard Caseby, this week told the Lords communications committee the claim had been the “twist of the knife” that “turned what was natural condemnation into a wave of such public revulsion that the News of the World could not really function as a going concern any more and it had to be shut down”. The false allegation cost 200 journalists their jobs, he said.
At the time, however, News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks told staff the paper was closing because of problems that had not yet been revealed: “Worse revelations are yet to come, and you will understand in a year why we closed the News of the World.”
As in previous weeks, there were those who stood by the now-defunct masthead and others who looked back with at least some regret. Mr Thurlbeck told the inquiry he was proud of the paper’s “extremely fastidious journalists”.
But former editor Colin Myler, who was brought to the paper after previous editor Andy Coulson resigned following the hacking convictions, did express some remorse.
He said he felt “very bad” for publishing the private diaries of grieving mother Kate McCann following the disappearance of her daughter Madeleine in Portugal. Her diaries had been retained by Portuguese police and were leaked to the paper. Mr Myler said he had been told the McCanns had given permission for the story.
Mr Myler told the inquiry that when he took over the paper he feared there were “bombs under the newsroom floor, and I didn’t know where they were and I didn’t know He said the “For Neville” email, which was evidence that hacking involved more than one reporter, was one of those bombs.
Mr Myler and Mr Crone this week repeated that they had fully informed Mr Murdoch of the real situation at that meeting in 2008.
Mr Crone told the inquiry he showed Mr Murdoch the “For Neville” email: “What was relayed to Mr Murdoch was that this document clearly was direct and hard evidence.”
For James Murdoch, it is looking lonely at the top.First published in The Age.