The Keystone Kops of Koverups

A Telegraph scoop raises the heat yet again on News Corp. and the Murdochs

The Telegraph has a big scoop on the hacking scandal, reporting new details of how News Corporation deleted emails and destroyed reporters’ computers that “could be unhelpful in the context of future litigation.”

This might merely be skeevy were it not for the fact that existing (not “future”) litigation was already underway against subsidiary News International. Now it’s a real legal problem.

The documents, which are in claims by plaintiffs’s attorneys, say that beginning in 2008, News Corp. knew it had an obligation to preserve evidence. In September 2010 lawyers for Sienna Miller sent News International a letter demanding that they preserve evidence. That appears to have lit a fire under executives:

But an email from a News International IT employee three days later states: “There is a senior NI management requirement to delete this data as quickly as possible.”

You know what else happened in the days before this email? The New York Times Magazine unleashed its devastating piece on the scandal—one that made it clear once and for all, as I wrote at the time, that the scandal was not just a Guardian jihad and that it extended deep into Scotland Yard.

Worse for the Murdochs and their people, this next email appears to show that News Corp.’s lawyers were telling senior executives that their plans to delete the emails were not legal. Here an unnamed lawyer forwards a senior exec’s email to the IT, hoping to get some technological misdirection to back up his legal arguments:

The lawyer sent the email to a member of News International’s IT department asking: “Should I go and see them now and get fired - would be a shame for you to go so soon?!!!…Do you reckon you could add some telling IT arguments to back up my legal ones?”

No wonder this story prompted MP Tom Watson, who has been essential in uncovering this scandal, to tell Rupert Murdoch on Twitter that “the game is up.”

What’s almost funny here is the level of corporate dysfunction on display. These were the Keystone Kops of Koverups, the kind of executives that led British journalism professor Brian Cathcart to ask, quite reasonably, on Twitter: “what sort of dolt writes an email asking “How are we doing with the email deletion policy?”

Look at the timeline here: The Guardian broke the news of the scandal and coverup in July 2009, but News Corp. was aware years before that that it had a big problem. Andy Coulson apologized for Clive Goodman’s hacking in 2006 and Goodman was jailed in early 2007. James Murdoch approved huge payments to victims in 2008, hush money that came after Murdoch was told by his lawyers of the extent of the hacking.

But the company didn’t get around to talking about its Email Deletion Policy until November 2009, which would delete all emails before January 2010. Eight months later, in July 2010, a senior exec was asking why they still hadn’t been deleted, The Guardian reports. It wasn’t until October 2010 that the company could its coverup together enough to destroy all of its reporters’ computers and it took until January 2011 to destroy emails from the height of the hacking.

While this new information comes from plaintiffs’ claims to the court, the Guardian notes that:

Last month, the high court heard that News Group Newspapers had agreed - for the purposes of resolving hacking settlements with the likes of Jude Law and Ashley Cole - that “senior employees and directors” knew about phone hacking and sought to conceal by “destroying evidence of wrongdoing, which evidence included a very substantial number of emails” and the computers of three journalists which had been used when Mulcaire was employed under contract by the News of the World.

You can bet that there’s a lot more to come on this one.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,