08.16.11

Murdoch’s Damning Letter

Clive Goodman was called a 'rogue' hacker at News of the World, but in a newly revealed letter he says the paper’s top editors condoned it. William Underhill on the possible smoking gun.

When Clive Goodman was jailed for phone hacking back in 2007, his employers were quick to disown him. To his bosses at News International, the royal editor of the News of the World was a “rogue reporter” who had authorized a private investigator to intercept voice messages without their knowledge. Goodman, dismissed for “gross misconduct,” had acted alone.

Try telling that to investigators now. Documents published today by M.P.s looking into the hacking scandal appear to blow an irreparable hole in the company’s already threadbare defense. A letter written by Goodman four years ago suggests that not only was phone hacking widespread at the Murdoch-owned tabloid, but also that it was well known to senior staff, and that the newspaper attempted to buy his silence in court.

Goodman’s letter, an appeal to News International against his dismissal, is unequivocal. He had been unfairly sacked for a practice that was “widely discussed in the daily editorial conference until explicit reference to it was banned by the editor,” and he acted with the “full knowledge and support of other senior journalists.” As for his dismissal, it was “inconsistent” because “other members of staff were carrying out the same illegal procedures.”

What’s more, Goodman asserts that that a cover-up deal had been struck with his editor, Andy Coulson, who went on to become Prime Minister David Cameron’s director of communications. Before his trial, “the Editor promised on many occasions that I could come back to a job at the newspaper if I did not implicate the paper or any of its staff in my mitigation plea. I did not, and I expect the paper to honour its promise to me.”

The letter is among a mass of documents made public today by the Commons Culture Media and Sport Committee. The names of senior journalists who allegedly backed Goodman’s wrongdoing have been blacked out at the request of the police, who are carrying out their own inquiries.

For the senior management at News International, the embarrassment will be acute. At committee hearings last month, James Murdoch, chairman of News International, clung to the “rogue reporter" line. He now looks certain to be recalled to testify again. One committee member, the Labour M.P. Tom Watson, described the letter as “absolutely devastating” and “the most significant piece of evidence revealed so far.” He told The Guardian: “It completely removes News International’s defense.”

That defense was already under serious challenge. The former editor of the News of the World, Colin Myler, and the paper’s legal manager, Tom Crone, have alleged that James Murdoch misled the committee when he claimed to have been unaware of an email written in 2008 that suggested that journalists other than Goodman were involved in hacking. Both are likely to give evidence to the committee next month.

For the senior management at News International, the embarrassment will be acute.

Barely less serious, the latest documents include blistering criticisms from lawyers employed by News International to answer Goodman’s unfair-dismissal action. James Murdoch told M.P.s last month that he had relied on the findings of the law firm Harbottle & Lewis when he concluded that hacking was limited to a single reporter. The firm, he said, had found no signs of widespread wrongdoing after reviewing some 2,500 emails, some of which are now known to include evidence of criminal activity.

That’s plain wrong, says the law firm. Its brief was to discover only whether there was any proof that Goodman had acted with the “knowledge and support” of senior journalists. The suggestion that it was paid to conduct a deeper investigation was “inaccurate and misleading” and “self-serving.” The letter states: “There was absolutely no question of the firm being asked to provide News International with a clean bill of health which it could deploy later in wholly different contexts for wholly different purposes.”

The lawyers’ account could be tough to challenge. Their total bill for the work was just £10,000 ($16,000), certainly not enough to cover the cost of the full-scale probe into the paper’s activities that James Murdoch appeared to describe. Whatever other tactical mistakes the Murdochs may have made in the hacking affair, refusing to reemploy Clive Goodman must be among the worst.