Sources call it “another ruse to cover up a whitewash”
How innocent Will Lewis discovered ‘The File’
The explosive scandal involving Royal solicitors Harbottle & Lewis and 300 Newscorp emails moved to another level yesterday. The Slog learned that Rupert Murdoch told the Dowler family Friday he is to sue H&B. Two senior Newscorp legals associated with H&B’s appointment left Newscorp hurriedly this week. James Murdoch worked closely with both. H&B’s Lawrence Abramson, who delivered H&B’s emails ‘verdict’, himself left H&B last month. Was he persuaded to miss the obvious evidence of criminality? Decide for yourselves.
The Slog yesterday learned from sources close to the event that Rupert Murdoch told the Dowler family on Friday Newscorp had been ‘misled’ by Royal solicitors Harbottle & Lewis. Harbottle & Lewis act extensively for members of the Royal family, including the Wales’s, Cambridges and Yorks. Yet somehow in 2007, a senior Newscorp Exec decided to get a legal opinion from H&B about whether 300 emails associated with hacking of the Wales children betrayed evidence of criminal wrongdoing. (I understand this was to help defend Newscorp against a wrongful dismissal case from Clive Goodman).
Like me, you may see that as something of a conflict of interest for H&B, but the Royal firm duly went ahead, with Managing Partner Lawrence Abramson taking on the task personally. It goes without saying that an opinion from Abramson putting Newscorp in the clear would have gone down particularly well with Newscorp’s senior management. Lawrence Abramson duly delivered precisely that opinion. It seems that the report was comissioned from H&B by top Murdoch legal man Tom Crone, and the ‘results’ were reported to the Group’s legal boss Jon Chapman. Both men hurriedly departed Newscorp’s employment last week. James Murdoch worked closely with both of them, but he now claims to have known nothing about the advice sought from Harbottle & Lewis.
This feels like an obvious cover-up. The report only came to light earlier this year because Will Lewis (recently arrived from the Maily Telegraph as General Manager) spotted a reference in Newscorp data to ‘the File’.
Observers are wondering why two legals would take such an important and controversial decision without referring it to the UK Group’s then CEO, Les Hinton. Perhaps they did: we await Mr Hinton’s recollection. But Robert Peston of the BBC has opined that this also gives James Murdoch ‘some very difficult questions to answer’: why would an incoming CEO – the owner’s son – not have been briefed on such a key project? Last night, News International insisted Mr Murdoch ‘had no knowledge of the 300 e-mails that Harbottle & Lewis were asked to review’.
Whichever way you look at it, this is all very odd. Giving evidence later to the Culture, Media & Sport committee about the hush-money paid to hacking victim Gordon Taylor of the PFA soon afterwards, Crone gave this answer:
‘James Murdoch, Executive Chairman of News International Limited and a director of News Group Newspapers Limited, authorised the settlements and payments following discussions with Colin Myler and [myself]. No other directors of News Group Newspapers Limited knew about the settlements and payments at that time.’
So here is a relatively new CEO authorising ‘cover-up’ out of Court payments to a high-profile hacking victim three months after taking up his role, but he has no knowledge at all of a key legal opinion suggesting a lack of Newscorp criminality (beyond lone rogue Clive Goodman) in the case of the Royal phone-hacks. That sounds like gross dereliction to me. It also sounds like a masochist who only ever wants to know the bad news.
Having discovered ‘The File’, Will Lewis compared Abramson’s opinion to the contents of the 300 emails, and somewhat puzzled, he contracted another firm, Hickman and Rose, for a second opinion. Hickman Rose in turn used the expert services of Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, the former head of the Crown Prosecution Service, to provide a report for Newscorp.
Lord Macdonald yesterday confirmed he found evidence among the 300 emails of “indirect hacking”, breaches of national security, and clear evidence of serious crime. He said: “The advice by Harbottle & Lewis was incomprehensible.”
In order to make this article comprehensible at all to the lay reader, we therefore now need some informed speculation to explain the incomprehensible. If you follow.
First off, it seems extraordinary to me that a company recently found guilty of hiring people to hack Royal phones would go to the defendants’ solicitors to ask for an opinion on criminality. I mean there are Chinese walls and Chinese walls.
There seem only two possible conclusions to reach based on such an action. First, that you were so sure the emails were squeaky-clean, a favourable opinion from Royal solicitors would be worth its weight in gold. But it is now obvious that the emails incriminated Newscorp deeply.
So we’re left with the second conclusion: that Newscorp commissioned the report knowing in advance that it would exonerate them – that in effect, they would get a whitewash.
And that points an extremely accusatory finger at messrs Abramson, Hinton, Chapman, Crone and – by inference – James Murdoch.
But a penultimate question nags at the analytical mind: what do you do if this all goes pear-shaped, and innocent later management folks like Will Lewis wonder how anyone with half a brain could find the emails entirely innocent?
Why, then you must once again look shocked….and accuse Harbottle & Lewis of misleading you…. an approach that crafty old Rupe began to seed while he was absolving himself with the Dowlers last Friday.
Which leaves us with a final riddle: what on earth would induce the Managing Partner of a Royal firm of solicitors to mislead a company (that had hacked his own client) into thinking that it was corporately innocent?
Yes, quite. There all all kinds of inducements, and Newscorp is more expert in that field than most. A spokeswoman for Lawrence Abramson, who was managing partner at the firm in 2007, said: ‘Professional duty of confidentiality prevents me from commenting.’ Sounds like the perfect spokesperson if you’ve something to hide.
Late last night, a former Wapping staffer told The Slog, “It’s brilliant. Newscorp is the only company in the world that would cover up a whitewash”.