Tom Watson MP said the new material was devastating and he was not exaggerating. Difficult though it may be to believe, documents released by the Commons culture, media and sport select committee are at least as damaging to News International management as the revelation last month that Milly Dowler’s voicemail had been hacked. That news prompted disgrace and resignations: now we are looking at possible criminal charges at senior levels.
Assuming that these documents hold up to scrutiny, a whole raft of executives – not journalists or editors, but well above that level – are surely likely to be questioned by police investigating the possibility of a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. Arrests in some cases must be likely.
James Murdoch, virtually the last man standing at News International, may not be facing jail, but he will struggle to argue his way out of this corner. When he appeared before MPs beside his father he chose a strategy of bluster and blaming others. Predictably, those others have bitten back and as a result James must be finished as a company executive in the UK. It is very difficult to believe that a man so compromised in this country could ever hold a global role at News Corporation either.
Rarely can the old line about the cover-up being worse than the original crime have been so spectacularly borne out. And rarely can a parliamentary select committee have, by patient digging, unearthed such a bundle of sensations.
Most damaging of all is the implication that Clive Goodman, the royal reporter jailed for hacking in 2007, was encouraged or induced by News International executives to withhold the full truth about the extent of hacking from police and the courts. The Goodman letter makes clear that he knew in 2007 what we all now know – that hacking was widespread at the paper.
Second to that in importance is the evidence suggesting Goodman was paid nearly a quarter of a million pounds by the company after his release from jail – a far higher sum than the company previously claimed, and indeed a sum so high that to many eyes it suggests that News International bought the silence of employees.
As for James Murdoch, he is haunted now by 10 words he uttered to MPs, which he will now have to defend: “No, I was not aware of that at the time.”
He was telling Watson he was unaware of the famous “for Neville” email at the time he authorised a half-million-plus payment to Gordon Taylor in 2008 to withdraw his legal case about hacking and remain silent. That email offered – on any normal reading – firm evidence that Goodman had not been the only News of the World reporter involved in illegal hacking.
There were two people in the room with James Murdoch that day in 2008. Both have now asserted firmly that not only was he aware of the email, but it was either shown or described to him there and then. They are Tom Crone, former legal chief of News Group Newspapers, and Colin Myler, former News of the World editor.
At the same time, James’s efforts to shift responsibility to the lawyers Harbottle & Lewis also seems to have backfired. Only a fool picks a fight with a lawyer, and sure enough they have come back and slated his evidence.
James has been asked back to the media committee to clarify his evidence. That will be a humiliation so dreadful that he will be looking for any way he can to avoid it. Meanwhile a number of people accustomed to executive limos and seven-figure salaries are beginning to wonder what it might be like in jail.
By Brian Cathcart, professor of journalism at Kingston University London and was a founder of the Hacked Off campaign.