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Email Adds Fuel to Murdoch Hacking Accusations

Rupert Murdoch’s son James received and responded to e-mail messages in 2008 that referred to “a nightmare scenario” of legal repercussions from widespread phone hacking at the tabloid The News of the World, a chain of e-mail messages and replies released Tuesday by a British parliamentary panel shows. It is the first documentation that Mr. Murdoch had been notified of a wider hacking problem long before he has admitted.

James Murdoch speaking in front of Parliament
CNBC
James Murdoch speaking in front of Parliament

In statements released Tuesday, James Murdoch, who runs the News Corporation’s operations in Europe and Asia, admitted he had received and replied to the message on his BlackBerry, but he said he “did not read the full e-mail chain.”

He said he stood by his repeated public denials that he knew of widespread hacking at the tabloid at the time he approved a large legal settlement with a victim of the practice in 2008.

But the new documents appear to add fuel to a controversy that has severely damaged the reputation of the News Corporationand the Murdochs’ leadership, both in Britain and the United States.

The e-mail chain of messages backs up the accounts of two of James Murdoch’s former senior executives, an in-house lawyer and an editor, who said they had told him of evidence that illegally intercepting voice mail messages to gather news and gossip went beyond a single “rogue reporter.”

The top e-mail in the chain — the one Mr. Murdoch replied to directly — came from the editor of The News of the World at the time, Colin Myler, who wrote that the potential legal fallout from the hacking problem was “as bad as we feared.” Mr. Myler urged Mr. Murdoch to call a meeting promptly to discuss the issue. Mr. Murdoch replied within minutes, saying he could be available that evening or the next day.

The e-mails do not show conclusively that Mr. Murdoch knew more about the extent of hacking than he has said. But they make clear that his subordinates informed him about the potential fallout at the time they were seeking his approval for an unusually large payment of more than $1 million to a victim of hacking. That victim had obtained evidence that the practice was common at The News of the World.

Mr. Murdoch, viewed as a possible heir to his father at the News Corporation, has come under pressure from British politicians and some shareholders of the global media company to explain how much he and other senior executives knew about the hacking.

The e-mails seem likely to provide ammunition to critics of the News Corporation’s leadership who have expressed doubts that James Murdoch or his father could have been as unaware of intrusive reporting practices at the tabloid as they have claimed.

The e-mail messages were sent to the panel, the committee on culture, media and sport in the House of Commons, as part of an internal investigation by News International, the tabloid’s parent company. The parliamentary committee is investigating allegations that the tabloid illegally intercepted the voice-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of people in the news between 2001 and 2009.

After several years of denials, News International admitted widespread phone hacking earlier this year after a cascade of revelations, followed by dozens of lawsuits. At least 18 former News of the World employees have since been arrested, and the 168-year-old newspaper itself was closed this summer.

In several intense and dramatic sessions of the parliamentary committee this year, Mr. Murdoch and his former executives gave differing testimony over the crucial question of what he knew, and when. Directly contradicting Mr. Murdoch’s statements, the executives told the committee that they informed him in 2008 that the company line — that phone hacking was the work of one “rogue reporter” — was not likely to be true.

They say that when Mr. Murdoch approved a large settlement of £725,000, then about $1.4 million, in a phone hacking lawsuit that year, he did so with full knowledge that other reporters at the paper may have been involved in similar practices.

Mr. Murdoch has consistently countered that on the contrary, he knew of only a single reporter who was guilty of phone hacking at the paper and that he approved the settlement, which included a confidentiality clause, because his lawyers told him it made financial sense.

The e-mails, from June 7, 2008, discuss that lawsuit, brought by a British soccer union executive, Gordon Taylor, whose phone had been hacked by The News of the World. One lawyer said the case was a “nightmare scenario” because it might uncover other voice-mail interceptions and names other journalists implicated.

Another message noted that Mr. Taylor wanted to demonstrate that hacking was “rife throughout the organization.” As he forwarded the chain to Mr. Murdoch, Mr. Myler, the editor, warned that the situation was “as bad as we feared” and requested a meeting to discuss the matter further.

In a letter that Mr. Murdoch sent to the parliamentary panel, also released on Tuesday, he said he recalled no conversation with Mr. Myler that weekend and reaffirmed his position that he was “not aware of evidence that either pointed to widespread wrongdoing or indicated that further investigation was necessary.”

He also apologized for failing to bring up the e-mail exchange when questioned extensively this year, saying he had been reminded of it only last week by the internal inquiry.

The lawyer who represented Mr. Taylor, Mark Lewis, who also represents several of those currently bringing lawsuits over allegations of phone hacking, said Tuesday that he was not convinced by Mr. Murdoch’s statement. “James Murdoch accepts that he signed the check to Gordon Taylor,” Mr. Lewis said. “Now we have to believe that not only didn’t he know but no one asked him what he thought of the e-mail he was sent.”

A spokeswoman for News International declined to answer further questions. But a company official, who did not want to be named discussing a continuing investigation, said Mr. Murdoch still maintained that he was never given access to crucial documents that showed, in detail, the depth of the illegality at the newspaper.