Claims that James Murdoch knew three years ago that phone hacking at the News of the World was not confined to a single “rogue” reporter have been referred to the police in the UK.
Labour MP Tom Watson said he was contacting Scotland Yard after two former senior executives at the paper publicly challenged Mr Murdoch’s evidence to the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee earlier this week.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said Mr Murdoch clearly had “questions to answer in Parliament” following the intervention of former editor Colin Myler and former legal manager Tom Crone.
In his evidence to the committee on Tuesday, Mr Murdoch said he was unaware of an email suggesting hacking at the paper was more widespread when he agreed a reported £700,000 out-of-court settlement with Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association, in 2008.
But in a statement last night, Mr Myler and Mr Crone said Mr Murdoch was “mistaken” and they had informed him of the email, which had been obtained by Mr Taylor’s lawyers.
Mr Murdoch, News Corporation’s deputy chief operating officer, responded by saying that he stood by his original evidence.
Mr Watson, a member of the committee and a leading critic of the Murdochs, said the police on the Operation Weeting inquiry into phone hacking now needed to investigate what happened as a matter of urgency.
“I think this is the most significant moment of two years of investigation into phone hacking,” he told the BBC.
He said that if Mr Myler and Mr Crone were correct, Mr Murdoch had “bought the silence” of Mr Taylor.
“It shows that he not only failed to report a crime to the police, but because there was a confidentiality clause involved in the settlement, it means that he bought the silence of Gordon Taylor and that could mean that he is facing investigation for perverting the course of justice,” he said.
Scotland Yard confirmed that it had received Mr Watson’s letter, which was “being considered”.
Meanwhile, Mr Cameron, speaking on a visit to Warwickshire, said News International – News Corp’s UK newspaper publishing arm – needed to clear up the “mess” that had been created.
“Clearly, James Murdoch has got questions to answer in Parliament and I am sure that he will do that. And clearly, News International has got some big issues to deal with and a mess to clear up,” he said.
“That has to be done by the management of that company. In the end, the management of a company must be an issue for the shareholders of that company.”
Labour MP Chris Bryant, who is taking legal action over claims that his phone was hacked, sought to step up the pressure on the company with a call for the suspension of Rupert and James Murdoch from their roles in News Corp.
In a letter to the non-executive directors, he said there had been a “complete failure to tackle the original criminality at the company” and “the lackadaisical approach to such matters would suggest that there is no proper corporate governance within the company”.
The email at the centre of the latest controversy - known as the ``For Neville'' email, apparently in reference to the paper's then chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck - contained transcripts of hacked phone messages.
Critics of News International say it shows that, at the time of the settlement with Mr Taylor in 2008, it was known within the company that the practice was not confined to former royal editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, who had been jailed the previous year.
“Taylor was the victim of a crime,” Mr Watson said. “Far from reporting the crime to the police or putting the matter right within his own company, what Myler’s statement shows – if it is true – (is) that James Murdoch knowingly bought the silence of Taylor, thereby covering up a crime.
“In the UK, that is called conspiring to pervert the course of justice and it is a very serious matter.”
He added: “It is remarkable that this week, with the global media pantomime of Rupert and James Murdoch coming to Parliament, broadcast live on every news channel around the world, and then 48 hours later a senior editor and a lawyer are saying Parliament was once again misled.
“I have never known anything like it in all my time in politics.”
Speaking during a visit to the Disasters Emergency Committee London offices to back its East Africa Crisis Appeal, Labour leader Ed Miliband said: ``I think that people will want to look at the comments that were made and want to resolve the different versions of events that we've seen.
“In the end, this is going to be a matter for the police, but I think the chair of the Culture Select Committee John Whittingdale is right to now inquire of James Murdoch to try and reconcile this discrepancy.”
Mr Miliband added that there were also “still serious questions” for Mr Cameron to answer, including about the failure to provide a high level of vetting security clearance for Andy Coulson.
He said: “People are going to be asking questions – well, why wasn’t that security clearance done for him? Were people worried that he wasn’t going to pass that security clearance?”