News International and Phone-hacking - Culture, Media and Sport Committee Contents

1  Introduction

1.  This Report examines whether or not there is good evidence to suggest that the Committee and its predecessor Committees have been misled by any witnesses during the course of their work on the phone-hacking scandal, which continues to reverberate around News International and to have major repercussions for the British newspaper industry as a whole.

Background: the Committee's work on phone-hacking

2.  In the last decade, the Committee's predecessors have conducted three separate inquiries into press standards, taking a special interest in privacy. In the last Parliament, as part of the most recent of the three Reports—Press standards, privacy and libel—the Committee looked into allegations of widespread phone-hacking at the News of the World.[1] It was not convinced by assurances given to it that phone-hacking had been the work of a single 'rogue reporter' and was frustrated by what it described as the "collective amnesia" that seemed to afflict witnesses from News International.[2] It also criticised the Metropolitan Police for failing to pursue its own investigation into phone-hacking.[3] The Committee made it clear that it regarded some of the contentions made by witnesses as straining credulity but, faced with a repeated insistence that wrongdoing was not widespread, and the unwillingness of police and prosecutors to investigate further, it was not possible to conclude definitively that we had knowingly been given evidence which was deliberately misleading or false, either by individuals or by News International itself.

3.  A series of events in 2011 changed the situation:

  • On 5 January 2011, the News of the World suspended its Assistant Editor Ian Edmondson over alleged involvement in phone-hacking.
  • On 15 January 2011, following continued civil cases by phone-hacking victims, the Crown Prosecution Service announced a review of the evidence collected in the Metropolitan Police's original investigation of phone-hacking at the News of the World. The announcement was made after News International had tasked Group General Manager Will Lewis with re-examining all the documents held by Harbottle & Lewis, a firm of solicitors that—in 2007—had conducted an independent review of those papers in the context of an unfair dismissal claim being brought by Clive Goodman, the News of the World's former Royal Editor, against the company. Mr Lewis had passed the material to a different firm of solicitors, Hickman Rose, who in turn had referred the material to Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, a former Director of Public Prosecutions, for an opinion. On the basis of his opinion, it was decided to refer the matter immediately to the police.
  • On 26 January 2011, the Metropolitan Police announced that it was re-opening its investigation into phone-hacking. The new investigation, Operation Weeting, is being led by Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers, who replaced Acting Deputy Commissioner John Yates, one of the Metropolitan Police witnesses who appeared before the Committee in 2009. It is conducting a fresh examination of all evidence, including that held by the police since the prosecution of the newspaper's former Royal Editor, Clive Goodman, and the private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, and is contacting, with distinctly more vigour and purpose, victims of the newspaper's phone-hacking activities. Since then, two further, parallel investigations have been launched, also headed by DAC Akers: Operation Elveden into alleged payments to police officers; and Operation Tuleta into other activities beyond phone-hacking, including e-mail and computer hacking.
  • On 10 March 2011, Chris Bryant MP held an adjournment debate on the floor of the House of Commons, during the course of which he accused Acting Deputy Commissioner John Yates of having misled both the Culture, Media and Sport and Home Affairs Select Committees when giving evidence on phone-hacking. Mr Yates had asserted that, under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA), it was only possible to prosecute illegal voicemail intercepts if it could be proved that the hacker had accessed the voicemail before the intended recipient had listened to it.[4] Written evidence to the Home Affairs Committee from the Director of Public Prosecutions stated, however, that "the prosecution [in the cases of Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire] did not in its charges or presentation of the facts attach any legal significance to the distinction between messages which had been listened to and messages that had not".[5] In fact, because both Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire had pleaded guilty, this issue was never tested.[6] On 14 March 2011, Acting Deputy Commissioner John Yates wrote to the Committee offering to give evidence in response to the comments made by Mr Bryant in his debate four days earlier and did so on 24 March.
  • On 5 April 2011, Ian Edmondson and Neville Thurlbeck, the News of the World's Chief Reporter, were arrested on suspicion of unlawfully intercepting voicemail messages, the first arrests in the course of the new police investigations.[7]
  • On 7 July 2011, James Murdoch, Deputy Chief Operating Officer and Chairman and Chief Executive Officer (International), News Corporation, made a public statement announcing the closure of the News of the World, in which he stated that wrongdoing was not confined to one reporter and that both the newspaper and News International had failed to get to the bottom of this affair. He also said that "the paper made statements to Parliament without being in the full possession of the facts. This was wrong".[8]

4.   Taken together, all these events made it inevitable, and imperative, that the Committee would wish to re-open its inquiries into the phone-hacking affair, and its fall-out, and investigate in particular the extent to which we, and previous Committees, had been misled. We re-opened our inquiry. Given James Murdoch's public assertion that the News of the World had "made statements to Parliament without being in the full possession of the facts", we decided to invite James Murdoch to give oral evidence on 19 July 2011 so that he could expand on this admission. We invited Rebekah Brooks, then Chief Executive Officer of News International, and Rupert Murdoch, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of News Corporation, to give evidence alongside him. Rebekah Brooks responded that she would be able to give oral evidence at the time requested. Rupert Murdoch declined to attend and James Murdoch said that he would be willing to attend on an unspecified future date. Finding this to be unsatisfactory, we issued an Order summoning Rupert and James Murdoch to attend the Committee on 19 July 2011, which they did.

5.  During the evidence session on 19 July 2011, Rupert Murdoch was subjected to an assault by a member of the public. The Chairman expressed his grave concern that such a serious incident was able to take place within the precincts of Parliament and apologised to Rupert Murdoch on behalf of the Committee. Similarly, the Speaker of the House of Commons stated that "it is wholly unacceptable for a member of the public to treat, and to be able to treat, a witness in this way". He commissioned an independent review into the security breach and steps have been taken to ensure that no such thing can happen again.[9] We thank Rupert Murdoch for his willingness to continue to give evidence to us in those circumstances.

6.  Given the testimony of the Murdochs, what we had heard from other witnesses previously and a dispute between two previous witnesses—Tom Crone and Colin Myler—and James Murdoch,[10] we held a series of further evidence sessions. On 6 September, we heard from various former News International employees: Jonathan Chapman, former Director of Legal Affairs; Daniel Cloke, former Group Human Resources Director; Tom Crone, former Legal Manager for News Group Newspapers; and Colin Myler, the former Editor of the News of the World. On 19 October, we heard from Julian Pike, a solicitor at Farrer & Co and long-time legal adviser to News International, and Mark Lewis, a solicitor at Taylor Hampton, whose pursuit of the affair as the legal adviser to Gordon Taylor, the first victim to sue, had been instrumental in exposing the extent of phone-hacking at the News of the World. Les Hinton, former Executive Chairman of News International, gave evidence by video-link on 24 October and, on 10 November, we heard again from James Murdoch. Our predecessor Committees had heard from Rebekah Brooks, Tom Crone, Colin Myler, former News of the World Editor Andy Coulson, former News of the World Managing Editor Stuart Kuttner, Mark Lewis and Les Hinton during the course of their previous inquiries.

7.  We also received a considerable amount of very detailed written evidence, all of which is published alongside the transcripts of the oral evidence sessions as part of this Report. For ease of reference, a timeline of events and list of the people involved are both included as annexes to this Report.

Parliamentary context

8.  The truthfulness of evidence given before a select committee, whether in written or oral form, is a cornerstone of the parliamentary select committee system. Erskine May, The Treatise on the Law, Privileges and Usage of Parliament, notes that "the House requires truthful evidence from witnesses and seeks to protect them from being obstructed from giving evidence".[11] So strong is the presumption of truth, and so seriously do most witnesses take the process of giving evidence, that it is not usual for select committees to administer oaths to witnesses.[12]

9.  To enable it to carry out its functions, each House of Parliament enjoys certain rights and immunities, foremost amongst which is freedom of speech. The sum of these rights and immunities is known as parliamentary privilege. Breaches in privilege are punishable under the law of Parliament. Actions which are not breaches of a specific privilege but are offences against the authority and dignity of the House, and would tend to obstruct or impede it, are known as contempts of Parliament. Erskine May notes that "the power to punish for contempt has been judicially considered to be inherent in each House of Parliament".[13]

10.  As bodies of the House of Commons, select committees and their members share in the House's privileges and the same principles of contempt apply. Witnesses found to have misled a select committee, to have wilfully suppressed the truth, to have provided false evidence and even to have prevaricated have all been considered to be guilty of contempt of Parliament in the past.[14] This is no trivial matter, either for select committees or for witnesses. Select committees rely upon the truthfulness of the evidence given to them in order to conduct their business. As far as witnesses are concerned, even setting aside the issue of punishment, to be found in contempt of Parliament brings reputational damage and public opprobrium. It is, therefore, something that all witnesses would normally strive to avoid. This perhaps explains why committees only very rarely need to consider the issue of contempt.

11.  The allegation that witnesses have misled the Committee is a grave one and the awareness of the potentially serious consequences of our conclusions for the individuals concerned has been an important consideration to us in our work. A select committee inquiry is not a judicial process but the same principles of fairness and impartiality should apply, particularly where so much is at stake for specific individuals. For this reason, we have been particularly careful to separate out fact from opinion in both the evidence that we have received and in the conclusions that we have reached.

The wider context and other investigations into phone-hacking

12.  Phone-hacking is currently the subject of the Metropolitan Police's Operation Weeting investigation, as well as a separate inquiry by Strathclyde Police and Lord Justice Leveson's public inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the media. Given that we have been inquiring into the issue of whether or not the Committee has been misled, in theory the scope for overlap with either the police investigation or Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry should be limited. In practice, the issue of whether or not we have been misled turns on a detailed understanding of the scope and implications of a number of documents and events, most of which are likely also to be of interest to the Metropolitan Police and to Lord Justice Leveson.

13.  We have, from the outset of this inquiry, been mindful of the need to avoid unnecessary overlap with either the work of the Police or Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry. Where some degree of duplication has been unavoidable, we have worked very hard to ensure that we did not pursue lines of inquiry which risked prejudicing future criminal prosecutions. If some of the individuals who have been of interest to us are suspected of any form of criminal activity, it is clearly of paramount importance that it is possible for a case to be brought and for any resulting trial to be fair. For this reason, we have been careful to respect the requests of individuals who have been arrested, in view of ongoing police proceedings.

14.  The issue of whether or not we have been misled is, however, properly a matter for the Committee itself to investigate. Indeed, had it not been for our insistence—as well as the persistence of the Guardian newspaper, certain lawyers and the civil claimants—many of the issues might never have come to light. We believe that in our work we have struck the appropriate balance between considering the important matter of a possible contempt of the House and allowing the Metropolitan Police investigation and the inquiry by Lord Justice Leveson to proceed unimpeded. As with the 2010 Report into Press standards, privacy and libel, we have also had to be pragmatic. Fresh revelations occur in this affair day by day and civil claimants, their lawyers and the judges involved have in their possession more facts than this Committee, including disclosures protected by court confidentiality. Conversely, through the powers of Parliamentary privilege and our decision not to depose witnesses under oath, we have been able both to ask questions of witnesses and to receive written evidence that other inquiries and proceedings would never have been able to obtain. We recognise that matters are fluid, and any report of ours may be overtaken by events. Nevertheless, it is incumbent on the Committee to produce a report based on the evidence before us, which is substantial.

Scope of the Committee's investigation

15.  News International's claim that phone-hacking could be dismissed as the work of a single 'rogue reporter' at the News of the World was a false one. As a result not only of our own investigation, but also of civil cases currently before the courts, Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry and investigative journalism, there has been a steady flow of evidence which, taken together, comprehensively discredits that assertion. This is beyond dispute. We have not, therefore, sought to test News International's original claim against every new piece of evidence: to do so would not only consume many more months and pages than we have at our disposal, but would also replicate work being done quite properly elsewhere. Instead, we have conducted detailed scrutiny of a small number of events and documents that are pivotal to any assessment of the truthfulness of the more specific assertions made to the Committee on previous occasions, in particular:

a)  The nature of the so-called 'investigations' at the News of the World involving its solicitors Burton Copeland and Harbottle & Lewis;

b)  The allegations made by Clive Goodman in pursuit of his employment claim and his subsequent pay-off, as well as that made to Glenn Mulcaire;

c)  Awareness of the so-called 'for Neville' e-mail, and its implications, within the News of the World and its two holding companies News Group Newspapers and News International;

d)  The out-of-court settlements made by News Group Newspapers with Gordon Taylor and other victims or claimants, insofar as evidence revealed in their cases is material as to whether the Committee has been misled; and

e)  The illegal interception of voicemails left on Milly Dowler's mobile telephone.

16.  During the course of this inquiry, we have been very concerned to learn of the alleged surveillance conducted by, or on behalf of, the News of the World, on members of our predecessor Committee during the course of its inquiry. We have, therefore, also followed up this serious matter in our questioning.

17.  In the light of the serious events since our 2010 Report, not least the summary closure of the News of the World in July 2011, before examining these areas in detail, we turn first to the approach of the newspaper and News International towards previous inquiries by the Committee, and also towards those of the Metropolitan Police and the Press Complaints Commission.

1   Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, Second Report of Session 2009-10, Press standards, privacy and libel, HC 362 (hereafter referred to as Press standards, privacy and libelBack

2   Press standards, privacy and libel, paras 441 and 442 Back

3   Press standards, privacy and libel, para 467 Back

4   AC John Yates oral evidence to Home Affairs Committee, Sept 7 2010, Q5, published as Specialist Operations, HC 441-i, of session 2010-12 Back

5   Memorandum submitted by Keir Starmer QC, Director of Public Prosecutions to the Home Affairs Committee, October 2010, published in Home Affairs Committee, Unauthorised tapping into or hacking of mobile communications, Thirteenth Report of Session 2010-12, HC 907, Ev 126 Back

6   Standards & Privileges Committee, Privilege: Hacking of Members' Mobile Phones, Fourteenth Report of Session 2010-12, HC 628, Appendix Back

7   "Phone hacking: NoW journalist arrested" The Guardian online, 5 April 2011 Back

8   News International Press Release, 7 July 2011 Back

9   HC Deb, 20 July 2011, Column 917 Back

10 Back

11   Erskine May, Parliamentary Practice, 24th ed., pp 817-818 Back

12   Erskine May, 24th ed., p 824 Back

13   Erskine May, 24th ed., p 203 Back

14   Erskine May, 24th ed., pp 252-253  Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 1 May 2012