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02.24.12

Did NOTW Delete Phone-Hacking Emails?

Newly released court documents claim that a senior executive at News of the World implemented an ‘email-deletion policy’ and destroyed hundreds of thousands of company emails.

This week, News International finally settled the last of nearly 60 lawsuits recently brought by alleged victims of phone hacking against the company, the U.K. arm of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

But court documents released yesterday by a high-court judge detailed potentially troublesome allegations that would have aired in trials if the lawsuits had proceeded. (British papers published the documents here and here.)

Names and certain sections of the court documents had been redacted. But even with the redactions, the documents—created by lawyers for the alleged phone-hacking victims and based on information provided by News International’s internal investigative arm, the Management and Standards Committee—contain damaging information. According to the claimants, an unnamed senior executive at News International reportedly engaged in what one newspaper described today as a “secret policy of deleting emails that could be ‘unhelpful’ in any future litigation.”

The court documents say that a senior executive had discussed, via email, a program put in place to delete certain company emails. The claimants also allege that News International destroyed the computer used by a journalist who had been named in one specific suit by the actress Sienna Miller. In one correspondence, the documents say the executive sent an email ordering that “everyone needs to know that anything before January 2010 will not be kept.”

The timing of the purported deletions would have taken place after the first accusations of phone hacking had appeared in rival papers and after legal actions against the company’s News of the World tabloid had been launched, starting in 2007. The court papers also refer to a September 2010 letter from Miller’s legal team that ordered all relevant documents and emails in her potential phone-hacking case be preserved by Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers, which published News of the World.

According to the court documents, three days after that letter was sent, an IT employee at News International sent an email stating that “There is a senior NI management requirement to delete this data as quickly as possible but it need [sic] to be done within commercial boundaries.”

The court documents cite language from the company’s own alleged Email Deletion Policy, whose purpose was purportedly to “eliminate in a consistent manner across News International (subject to compliance with legal and regulatory requirements) emails that could be unhelpful in the context of future litigation in which an NI company is a defendant.”

Hundreds of thousands of emails were allegedly destroyed, according to the court documents. The claimants also say a staff member was ordered to get rid of boxes of paperwork related to the deleted emails.

The release of the court documents could mean that News International executives may face serious legal questions. Even anti-phone-hacking activists who have been following the saga closely were surprised by the latest turn of events. Martin Moore, the director of the Media Standards Trust and founder of the Hacked Off campaign, said in an email, “these documents are pretty damning for News Group Newspapers. In claiming that NGN destroyed evidence which the court had ordered to be preserved, these documents suggest the company engaged in a conscious ‘email deletion policy.’”

“It’s not the first we have heard about deletions,” says Brian Cathcart, a journalism professor and anti-hacking activist. “But this new document provides more detail and leaves us with a picture that is truly alarming.”

Tom Watson, the M.P. leading the campaign against Murdoch in Parliament, tweeted, “the game is up @rupertmurdoch.”

The court documents renew the question of how high up into News International’s current and former ranks the phone-hacking scandal could reach. “The scale of the corporate issue for News International and ultimately News Corporation caused by the email deletion practices will depend on both the seniority of the decision maker and also the seniority reached by any revealed debriefing or escalation process,” says media analyst Doug Franklin.

Hundreds of thousands of emails were allegedly destroyed, according to the court documents. The claimants also say a staff member was ordered to get rid of boxes of paperwork related to the deleted emails.

That would also likely be the issue for the FBI, which is reportedly investigating whether News International and News Corp. violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bars U.S. companies or their subsidiaries from paying public officials. The court documents also allege that emails submitted by the company to an outside law firm in early 2007 “showed clear evidence of … corrupt payments to police officers”—the subject that prompted the recent round of headline-grabbing arrests of senior journalists at Murdoch’s Sun tabloid. “If executives and lawyers at News of the World had ‘clear evidence’ by 2007 of corrupt payments to police officers, the FCPA-relevant question thus becomes, ‘What did the executives and lawyers at News of the World do with that information?” says Mike Koehler, an expert on the FCPA at Butler University. “Act upon it, report it to their superiors, implement remedial measures, or sweep it under the rug, ignore it, and allow it to continue?”

According to the court documents:

A private investigator employed by News of the World, Glenn Mulcaire, was allegedly ordered to hack phones “on at least 2,226 occasions over a period of about five years; that is, on average, more than once a day.”

All computers used by journalists who had been named in the Sienna Miller suit were destroyed, and “hundreds of thousands of emails, on nine separate occasions, were destroyed.”

* A “senior executive” sent emails in May 2010 “enquiring about email deletion and in August and October 2010 relating to the ‘email deletion policy’ … and pressing for such deletions.” The document goes on to cite the executive’s emails: “How come we still haven’t done the email deletions policy discussed and approved six months ago?” The document also includes a later email, sent from the same executive to a legal officer at the company, that reads, “how are we doing with the TMS email deletion policy?” The legal officer, says the document, then forwarded the message to a member of the IT team, saying “Should I go and see [them] now and get fired—would be a shame for you to go so soon?!!! Do you reckon you can add some telling IT arguments to back up my legal ones.”

* A senior executive “caused and procured an employee to remove seven boxes of their own records from the company storage facility.”