LONDON (Reuters) - The former chief legal advisor to News International said his conscience is clear and he had nothing to do with the phone hacking scandal that has shaken Rupert Murdoch’s media empire.
Before he left News International last week, Tom Crone oversaw all editorial legal matters for The Sun and the News of the World and would have had to approve the publication of many of its scoops over the past decade.
But he insisted he did not know any more about illegal activities at the News of the World than he revealed when questioned by the culture, media and sport parliamentary committee in 2009.
“I have no qualms whatsoever. My conscience is absolutely clear about CMS (the committee) and actually about everything else,” he told Reuters in a telephone interview.
News Corp Chief Executive Rupert Murdoch and his son James are to appear before the same committee later on Tuesday, followed by former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks who was arrested on Sunday as part of the investigation into allegations of phone hacking and bribery by the paper.
Murdoch shut the News of the World on July 10 after it emerged the practice of intercepting voicemails was more widespread than previously acknowledged and had also targeted a murdered schoolgirl and the grieving relatives of dead soldiers.
The News of the World’s methods were first scrutinized by police in 2005. More than a year later its royal editor Clive Goodman and private detective Glenn Mulcaire were jailed for conspiracy to access phone messages.
Until April this year, the newspaper maintained the hacking was limited to Goodman. However, according to Crone, evidence showing that it was more common first surfaced in 2008.
“At no stage during their (police) investigation or our investigation did any evidence arise that the problem of accessing by our reporters, or complicity of accessing by our reporters, went beyond the Goodman/Mulcaire situation,” Crone told parliamentary select committee in 2009, according to an official transcript.
“The first piece of evidence we saw of that, in terms of the management investigating, was in April 2008,” he said.
In his telephone interview with Reuters this week he added: “I accepted that inside the News of the World it went beyond Goodman.”
Before making a judgment on a story, Crone told the 2009 committee he had to find out its source and would, if needed, listen to taped telephone conversations.
When asked by a member of parliament whether he could “categorically tell us that you have never listened to any conversations which you think were obtained as a result of phone hacking,” Crone replied: “Yes, I can definitely say that.”
Crone told Reuters he was not aware until a few weeks ago of evidence showing News International had made payments to police.
Former News of the World editor Brooks told parliament during a 2003 session, also attended by Crone, that the company had paid police for information.
London’s Metropolitan Police Service said earlier this month that in June News International handed over a number of documents which “include information relating to alleged inappropriate payments to a small number of MPS officers.”
The BBC and U.S. magazine Vanity Fair reported these were emails appearing to show payments were made to police for information during the 2003-2007 editorship of Andy Coulson who was later hired as an advisor by Prime Minister David Cameron.
While Crone maintains his innocence, a media committee member Paul Farrelly told parliament last year the “legendary” lawyer had “misled our committee on the identity of the junior reporter who was involved in transcribing phone-hacked messages.”
Crone had told the committee the junior reporter was 20-years-old. “Prior to that actually I think he had been a messenger and he was being trained up off the floor,” Crone told the committee.
Last year’s report by the committee into press standards, privacy and libel says it later found out the junior reporter was aged 28 at the time of its inquiry and had several years’ experience at national level when he transcribed the messages. The parliamentary report last year concluded it was “inconceivable” that managers at the News of the World did not know about phone hacking, which the legislators said was more widespread than the Sunday newspaper had previously admitted.
A senior media lawyer who declined to be named pointed out that an in-house lawyer would sometimes approve a story for publication even when the reporter refused to disclose its source, but swore by its accuracy.
“The billion-dollar question is: really, how much did Tom know? That is a question only Tom can answer,” he said.
Additional reporting by Jodie Ginsberg; Editing by Jon Hemming