You know that a story’s big in a town when the bars and pubs switch their TVs from the Eurosport feed of some endless Italian football match (Milano Sfumogato 1-Pistachio Gelato 0) to the international news channels. And you know it’s really big when they switch to the BBC Parliament feed.
In Bar Italia, your correspondent’s local, a primo dive where the mods once gathered and Cliff Richard played the bongos, the hungover denizens of the Sohoerati were this morning, like everyone else, glued to the proceedings of the Commons select committee, as the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal went into its next phase, with evidence linking James Murdoch more explicitly to the practice of systematic hacking at the now-defunct News of the World.
Appearing today were Tom Crone, former legal adviser at News, and Colin Myler, the last editor of News of the World, both no longer part of the Death Star org. They were involved in the phone-hacking case in its crucial early stages, when the hacking story first erupted.
That began with revelations that NotW royal reporter Clive Goodman had been hacking into the phones of Prince William’s staff, with the help of a bottom-feeder private detective, Glenn Mulcaire. Goodman fell on his sword, pleaded guilty and did four months in chokey.
He subsequently got a quarter of a million pound settlement from News, and has, unsurprisingly, ever since insisted that he and Mulcaire acted alone.
That story became the keystone of News Corp’s official story — that higher authorities, starting from NotW editor Andy Coulson and going up to James Murdoch, knew nothing of the thousands of other phone hacks that had been going on at the paper for years.
That story has always been unbelievable, but an absence of evidence allowed the News hierarchy to tell the story with a straight face — as Rupert and James Murdoch did appearing before the committee earlier.
However, there was always a problem with that story — and that was the Gordon Taylor issue. Taylor, the head of the Professional Football Association, was informed by the police that he’d been hacked in 2007 — one of the few people to be so informed in the initial stages.
Taylor sued News, and in 2007, the company (News Group National) settled for £450,000 and £300,000 costs. Since court damages for privacy breach are capped at £250,000, the payout was an at-all-costs attempt to keep the issue quiet.
However, the size of the Taylor payment meant that the NGN board — headed by James Murdoch — had to sign off on it. And that has always been a gap in the official News version of events. How come he didn’t ask a question as to why the company was paying out three quarters of a million to this guy? Did he just sign the cheque?
Of course he didn’t, and today Crone and Myler gave evidence of the bleeding obvious — that they had met with James M, explicitly discussed the practice of hacking at NotW, and the difficulties it put them in vis a vis Taylor’s claim.
This conversation centred around an email now dubbed “For Neville”. Addressed to NotW deputy editor Neville Thurlbeck, it was a transcript of hacked voicemails from 15 different phones. Sent between NotW employees, it laid bare the systemic nature of hacking at News. James Murdoch has denied ever seeing the email or even being informed of its existence.
Crone had seen it while managing News’s case in defence against Taylor — whose legal team had included the email in their discovery documents. He says that he informed James M of the “For Neville” email — and that this, pretty obviously, is what convinced the higher authorities that it was worth paying any price to shut Taylor up.
Given that obvious point, Crone’s claim has commonsense on its side. More pertinently, the other attendee at the meeting, Colin Myler, supports Crone’s version and denies Murdoch’s.
Yet though Crone’s and Myler’s evidence lands James Murdoch right in it, its version of events — that this was a 15-minute meeting in which nothing else except the Taylor case was discussed — is equally hard to believe, and highly convenient to the pair.
Having given their alternative version of events, the pair weren’t going to give the committee much more, developing curious memory lapses about the details of the conversation in that 15-minute meeting.
The committee fumed, but there wasn’t much they could do about it. The same cannot be said of James Murdoch, who will be called to re-appear for the committee, an event that I suspect will have people crowding around electronics shop windows to watch, after which they will break them and steal the sets.
Crooks and thieves on either side of the screen — that’s Britain today. Typically, one side does better than the other, but committee MP Tom Watson has referred James Murdoch’s earlier evidence to the police, to see if there’s a case that he misled parliament … and brewing beneath are rumours that News sicced private detectives onto the lawyers representing hacking victims. And on it will run …