News International legal team to explain their advice

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by a Newsnet reporter

The legal company Harbottle and Lewis was employed by News International in 2007 to vet the contents of hundreds of emails detailing the extent of the phone-hacking at the News of the World.  It is understood that the emails contained correspondence between Andy Coulson, then editor of the News of the World, and Clive Goodman, the paper’s royal correspondent.  Goodman had been jailed earlier that year for illegally intercepting phone messages involving members of the royal household.

When the company reported back to News International, it concluded that it did “not find anything in those emails which appeared to us to be reasonable evidence” of “illegal actions”.  Company executives have since relied heavily on the ‘clean bill of health’ given to them by the legal firm in their defence of their actions in dealing with the scandal.

However as the scandal came to light it became clear that this advice was incorrect.  In an interview with the Wall Street Journal earlier this week, head of News International – and owner of the Wall Street Journal – Rupert Murdoch accused Harbottle and Lewis of making a “major mistake”.  After the the second police inquiry was launched in April this year, News International asked Lord Macdonald, the former head of the Crown Prosecution Service, for a second opinion.  Lord Macdonald reported that he came across evidence of ‘criminality’ within three to five minutes of looking at the documents, and advised News Internation to go to the police.

Due to their legal duty to observe client confidentiality, Harbottle and Lewis were prohibited from making their version of events public, however it is understood that the company was angered that News International had not disclosed the precise terms of the question which Harbottle and Lewis were employed to answer.

According to reports in the Guardian newspaper, the legal firm has now accused News International of refusing to release it from a client confidentiality clause so it can defend itself. A company representative recently wrote to the home affairs select committee to enquire  whether it may be possible to counter Mr Murdoch’s claims by giving testimony under parliamentary privilege.

However in an extraordinary development on Wednesday evening, it was announced that News International has now given Harbottle and Lewis permission to answer questions from Scotland Yard and Parliamentary committees.

The statement from News Corporation, the parent company of News International, said: “News Corporation’s management and standards committee can confirm that News International has today authorised the law firm Harbottle and Lewis to answer questions from the Metropolitan Police Service and parliamentary select committees in respect of what they were asked to do.”

It is thought that the statement from Harbottle and Lewis has the potential to fatally undermine the accounts of the affair given so far by certain executives.

In another sign that News International’s story may be about to unravel, it was also announced yesterday that the company would no longer pay the legal fees of Glen Mulcaire, the private investigator employed by the News of the World to hack phone accounts.  Until now, Mr Mulcaire, who was at the centre of the affair, has kept silent.  With News International no longer paying his legal fees it is quite possible he will no longer feel beholden to the company.

Speaking to reporters yesterday Mr Mulcaire insisted he had no comment to make at this time, but that “this may change”.