It might have seemed impossible, but things have gotten worse for those involved in the News of the World phone hacking scandal.
In addition to all the other evidence against the now defunct newspaper, which was run by James Murdoch, the son of everyone’s favorite terrifying Australian media baron, new email evidence — that investigators literally pulled out of a box in an abandoned office — indicates that the younger Murdoch should have known exactly what was going on.
This isn’t a smoking gun e-mail. It’s a smoking gun, fingerprints, and well-fit glove…
Yesterday, the New York Times ran an excellent story about what’s going on:
When The News of the World was closed in disgrace last summer, its newsroom was locked down by security guards. In mid-November, News International says, investigators searching the seized materials found a storage crate that, judging from a sticker on top, had come from the office of Colin Myler, the paper’s last editor. It contained a hard copy of an e-mail sent from Mr. Myler to James Murdoch on June 7, 2008 — in reality a chain of e-mails that included correspondence with Tom Crone, then an in-house lawyer.
“Unfortunately, it is as bad as we feared,” Mr. Myler wrote, speaking of an impending lawsuit that threatened to reveal that voice-mail hacking at the paper was endemic.
Last summer, senior News International officials said that in that crucial period in 2008, Mr. Murdoch had neither been told about nor shown documentation of the extent of the illegality at The News of the World. The discovery of the e-mail, said one former official with knowledge of the situation, was completely unexpected.
Why did it take so long to come to light? Linklaters, a law firm working for News International, said that a junior employee found it in November, but that senior officials at the firm did not know about it until December.
So, there is a lot to digest there. First, how the hell was discovery of this email unexpected? It is clearly relevant, and an in-house attorney was included on the thread. Second, it should have only been about ten seconds from when the junior employee found e-mail until nuclear alarm bells were going off across the office.
Originally the company said they thought the email had been deleted as part of a larger companywide initiative. Generally, that wouldn’t necessarily be a big deal. Companies have to get rid of old files as part of regular document retention policies. But perhaps unsurprisingly, News International wasn’t exactly going by the book:
[I]n January 2011, HCL said, News International asked whether HCL [Technologies, the company's email manager] was capable of helping “truncate” — meaning delete — “a particular database” in the e-mail system. The question came shortly after disclosures in a civil suit brought by the actress Sienna Miller raised fears that material about widespread phone hacking at The News of the World might become public.
News International did not explain why it wanted the deletion. HCL said it could not help and told the company to look elsewhere.
It is not clear whether the “stabilization and modernization program” that deleted the Murdoch e-mail was linked to News International’s request to “truncate” data. But it is clear that on Jan. 15, when the deletion took place, the company knew it was facing civil and potentially criminal inquiries. A month earlier, reacting to new information from the Miller and other cases, it had suspended the News of the World’s news editor, Ian Edmondson, on suspicion of phone hacking, and handed some material to the police.
I can imagine the internal discussion: “It’s about time to clear out all that old email, eh, chaps? What? We’re in the middle of litigation already? Oh, no. Don’t worry. These emails are entirely unrelated. Let’s go have a pint.”
Maybe it was an innocent mistake? “A dingo ate my email, I swear!” The article paints a nice little picture of the massive scope of e-discovery we are talking about here:
Dozens of people — lawyers, forensic accountants, forensic computer technicians and, sometimes, police officers — gather daily at a site in Thomas More Square here, where News International is based, searching through 300 million e-mails and other documents stretching back a decade.
On the other hand, the whole thing could be just another intentional act of dishonesty on the part of the company, in a long string of them. Yes, that sounds about right:
Last month, the High Court judge presiding over the civil lawsuits brought by hacking victims castigated News International for what he called its “startling approach” to e-mail. Even after the company received a formal request for documents, said the judge, Geoffrey Vos, “a previously conceived plan to delete e-mails was put in place by senior management.”
Speaking of News Group Newspapers, a division of News International, Justice Vos said that “they are to be treated as deliberate destroyers of evidence.”
These allegations border on absurdly brazen to begin with. But as the Times mentions, what will really make a judge blow his top is the fact that the company has claimed every step of the way to be cooperating as much as possible.
In any event, even as “deliberate destroyers of emails” News of the World seems to be comically incompetent.
Hacking Cases Focus on Memo to a Murdoch [New York Times]