Why NewsCorp didn't let Harbottle talk

  • 20 July 2011
  • From the section Business
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Glenn Mulcaire Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Glenn Mulcaire - News Corp has just stopped paying his legal costs

For months journalists, including myself, have asked News Corporation whether it was still paying the legal expenses of Glenn Mulcaire, the private detective imprisoned for phone hacking in 2007 who carried out illegal voicemail interceptions for the News of the World.

The company controlled by the Murdoch family consistently refused to answer. Until yesterday, when James Murdoch - deputy chief operating officer of News Corp - confirmed to MPs that those expenses had been paid by his company.

And today, News Corp's newly created Management and Standards Committee decided it would stop paying Mr Mulcaire's legal costs.

So what about other former employees of the News of the World, who have been arrested? Is News Corp continuing to pay their legal expenses?

All of that's under review, said a company spokesman.

Separately News Corp said it could not give permission to Harbottle & Lewis, the firm of solicitors, to talk about how the solicitors had come to write a letter in May 2007, which was given to MPs, saying that illegal hacking was confined to a single rogue reporter.

News Corp said it would insist on client confidentiality because of the existence of a criminal investigation into all this.

Harbottle believes that the scope of its 2007 instructions from the UK arm of News Corp, News International, if put in the public domain, would not undermine the work of the Metropolitan police.

But Harbottle tells me it cannot ask the police for guidance on this, without breaching client privilege. Or to put it another way, only News International can release Harbottle from the requirement to keep silent on all this - and News Corp tells me it has more important priorities than to liaise with the police to reduce Harbottle's discomfiture.

The reason Harbottle's letter has become so resonant is because it was based on a file of 300 News of the World emails (see my earlier posts - NI 'found smoking gun e-mails' and Police officer 'sold royal family contact details' - for more on this), which on June 20 of this year was passed to the Metropolitan Police.

Yesterday, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Lord Macdonald - who for News Corporation reviewed the emails in the file that related to bribes allegedly paid to the police - told MPs: "I cannot imagine anyone looking at that file and not seeing evidence of crime on its face."

One of the unanswered questions about the News of the World scandal is why it took four years for News Corporation to pass these smoking-gun emails to the Met.

James Murdoch's explanation to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee for why News International failed to appreciate the scale of wrongdoing at the News of the World till the end of last year explicitly pointed to Harbottle's letter:

"I am glad you have asked about it, actually, because it is a key bit of outside legal advice from senior counsel that was provided to the company, and the company rested on it.

"I think it goes some distance in explaining why it has taken a long time for new information to come out. It was one of the pillars of the environment around the place that led the company to believe that all of these things were a matter of the past and that new allegations could be denied."

If the scope of the advice given by Harbottle was very narrow, which sources tell me it was, some will ask whether Mr Murdoch and other News International executives were right over several years to rely on the letter as proof that the crimes at the News of the World were limited to those that led to the jailing in 2007 of Mr Mulcaire and Clive Goodman, the former royal editor of the News of the World.

UPDATE 19.31

That was a quick change of heart.

News Corp's Management and Standards Committee has now decided to allow Harbottle to inform relevant parliamentary committees and the police what the solicitors were hired to do.

I am unclear how soon this fascinating information will be put in the public domain.