Was Rupert kept in the dark?

Could it be true Rupert Murdoch was kept out of the loop on the hacking scandal which devastated his empire? Possibly, but there are a few big problems with the story.

The Power Index

Rupert Murdoch has admitted it at last. News International covered up the phone hacking scandal. But don't get too excited about the headline, because Rupe reckons he was the biggest victim.

As the media mogul told the Leveson Inquiry, he and his son James were not to blame because they were duped by their evil minions

"I think the senior executives were all ... misinformed and shielded from anything that was going on there, and I do blame one or two people for that, who perhaps I shouldn't name, because for all I know they may be arrested yet, but there's no question in my mind that maybe even the editor, but certainly beyond that someone took charge of a cover-up," Rupert said. 

So who was responsible? According to Murdoch, it was Colin Myler and Tom Crone, the editor and legal counsel at the NotW who were at that infamous meeting with James Murdoch in June 2008 to agree on a secret £700,000 payment to hacking victim, Gordon Taylor.

So could this be true: that poor old Rupert was kept in the dark? Possibly, but there are a few big problems with the story.

First is that Myler didn't come to the News of the World as editor until January 2007, five months after police arrested royal correspondent, Clive Goodman, and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire for hacking. By that time, News International had supposedly conducted a thorough investigation to ensure no one else was up to it.

Second is that Myler sent an email to James Murdoch before the Taylor meeting, which would have shown Rupert's son that hacking was "rife", had he bothered to read it.

Third is that Crone and Myler have both sworn on oath that James was shown the damaging "For Neville" email at the Taylor meeting, plus an explicit legal opinion from Michael Silverleaf QC, which suggested hacking was widespread.

Fourth is that the story would involve James not telling his father about the huge settlement with Taylor until The Guardian blew the lid off in mid-2009, and then giving him a misguided explanation of why such a monster pay-out was justified.

Fifth is that it would also involve Rupert's surrogate daughter and News International CEO, Rebekah Brooks, not telling Rupert about an even bigger payment in early 2009 to buy the silence of another hacking victim, PR agent Max Clifford.

And there are plenty more points at which the story looks shaky, because Rupert and his fellow executives were warned several times it was not just one rogue reporter.

There was the initial trial, in January 2007, at which Mulcaire pleaded guilty to hacking phones belonging to five people who were not members of the Royal Family (and supplying that information to other journalists at News International). There was The Guardian article of July 2009, alleging that Mulcaire had hacked into thousands of voicemails for the News of the World. There was the House of Commons Media committee report in February 2010 ridiculing the one rogue reporter defence and accusing News executives of collective amnesia and obfuscation. And so it goes on.

But most of all, Rupert's claim that he was deliberately kept in the dark requires him to have shown remarkably little interest in a hugely important issue involving his British newspapers. And this is what really puzzled Robert Jay QC and Lord Leveson yesterday. It's worth reading their exchanges with Murdoch at length, because it gives you a clue about whether his lordship will swallow Rupert's argument when he writes his report.

First, here's Jay, who has reminded Murdoch that he appointed Myler editor to "find out what the bloody hell was going on" at the News of the World, and wonders why he never inquired what Myler had found.

Q: You've told us that this was a very serious matter. It was capable of affecting the whole reputation of News International in the United Kingdom, and its poison was capable of seeping ... far further. Was this not an issue which required your personal attention?

A: Look, in hindsight, as I said later ... I said that the buck stops with me, so I have to agree with you.

Q: Well ... Mr Murdoch. In one sense, the buck always stops with the chairman of the holding company ... but I was talking more directly about why you, given it was such an important issue, did not find out whether Mr Myler was discharging his brief. Do you see that point?

A: I don't know what else I was doing at the time, but I trusted Mr Hinton. I delegated that responsibility to Mr Hinton.

Q: Did you have discussions at least with Mr Hinton about this?

A: No. Not at the time.

Q: Some might say that all this picture is consistent with one of a desire to cover up rather than a desire to expose. Would you agree with that?

A: Well, people with minds like yours, yes, perhaps.

Lord Justice Leveson: Oh, oh.

A: I'm sorry, I take that back. Excuse me.

At this point, Lord Justice Leveson decided to weigh into the action.

Leveson: It is very, very clear, Mr Murdoch, that among the vast commercial interests that you have developed over your life, you have a particular interest in the print media.

A: Yes.

Leveson: And, if I may say so, you have shown that interest is more than just a commercial interest, it's more than just an intellectual interest, it is an interest that is within your being ...

A: Thank you, sir.

Leveson: Therefore, the question might be asked in this way: here was a newspaper that was in your family, that you had built up to be the largest-selling newspaper in the UK ... you would really want to know, as you yourself put it, what the hell was going on, because ... printing was running through your veins,

A: I have to admit that some newspapers are closer to my heart than others, but I also have to say that I failed ...

Leveson: No, no, I recognise that ... But it doesn't actually quite answer the question whether you really did try to understand what was going on or whether you felt: well, I don't need to understand what's going on, it's over and let's just move on.

And a little later, Leveson also inquired:

Leveson: I wonder whether you wouldn't want to know what was the atmosphere or the climate within your newspaper that had encouraged the Reporter to think that this was a correct way to proceed. That this was justifiable ... that actually the paper would be prepared to let this happen, would be prepared to go that extra illegal mile to get a story. So that's quite apart from whether it is one rogue reporter. It goes to: what's going on in the paper?

Rupert's answer to all this was that the police had told Les Hinton that hacking was confined to "one rogue reporter" and they were closing their file, so it was reasonable for Hinton to do the same.

However, this was shot down within minutes by a message from the Metropolitan Police, read out to the inquiry, denying that they had ever said any such thing. As Robert Jay QC put it:

"I've been asked to make it clear by the Metropolitan Police that they've never said, 'We are satisfied there's only one rogue reporter'. That was News International's assertion, not theirs.

Jay also criticised News International's lack of co-operation with the police in 2006. Murdoch claimed that the company had commissioned an outside firm of lawyers, Burton Copeland, to thoroughly investigate whether anyone else at the paper was involved in hacking, and pass the evidence to the police. Jay told him in reply:

"The evidence we've had conclusively demonstrates that the law firm you mentioned produced, I think, just one document, which we know did not represent the position at all, and one way or another, News International were being obstructive."

Rupert claimed to be deeply shocked by that revelation. Clearly, he had been kept in the dark there too.

He also claimed not to know that News International is still refusing to waive professional privilege over its communications with Burton Copeland, so the Leveson inquiry has been unable to discover what those lawyers were asked to do and what they found. Murdoch said this was news to him, but Jay reminded him he had already admitted it last July to the House of Commons.

Now why didn't someone tell Rupert that before?

We'll see in due course whether Leveson buys Rupert's line. We'll also see whether it was a wise move for him to declare war on Crone and Myler, criticise his son for "inexperience" and take a swipe at lawyer Harbottle & Lewis (who were employed by News in 2008 to investigate) for also letting him down.

But plenty more will happen before that plays out. Next week, the House of Commons Select Committee on Culture will give its verdict on the phone hacking scandal and whether James Murdoch misled parliament. Watch this space.

This article first appeared on The Power Index on April 27. Republished with permission.