The former legal chief of News Group Newspapers today told MPs he was “certain” he told James Murdoch about an explosive email which proved that knowledge of phone-hacking was more widespread at the News of the World than the company had claimed.
Mr Murdoch Jr, who was then chief executive of NoW publishers News International, has previously told the Commons Culture Committee he was not aware of the notorious “For Neville” document, which blew apart the company’s stance that hacking was the fault of a single rogue reporter – former royal correspondent Clive Goodman.
Former NGN legal manager Tom Crone today told the committee he informed Mr Murdoch about the document – a transcript of hacked private information about Professional Footballers’ Association chief executive Gordon Taylor – in a 15-minute meeting, also attended by then NoW editor Colin Myler in 2008.
However, he said he could not remember whether he had shown him a copy of the email.
It was at that meeting that James Murdoch authorised him to reach a settlement with Mr Taylor, who was eventually paid £425,000, the committee heard.
But Mr Crone insisted that there was no “cover-up” by the company, as the email had been provided to them by the Metropolitan Police after it was seized from private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, who was jailed with Goodman in 2003 for hacking into the phone messages of members of the royal household.
A confidentiality clause included in the settlement was insisted upon by Mr Taylor’s lawyers to avoid sensitive information about his personal life becoming public, said Mr Crone.
In a bruising clash with committee member Tom Watson – the Labour MP who has led the charge over phone-hacking – Mr Crone denied that Mr Murdoch demanded a confidentiality clause and authorised the large financial settlement in order to prevent the exposure of “widespread criminality” at the News of the World.
The former NGN legal chief said his priority was to avoid cases being launched by four other individuals whose phones Mulcaire had admitted hacking.
“The imperative or the priority at the time was to settle this case, get rid of it, contain the situation as far as four other litigants were concerned and get on with our business,” said Mr Crone.
Recalling the emergence of the ``For Neville'' document - widely suspected to be intended for then NoW chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck - Mr Crone said: ``It was clear evidence that phone-hacking was taking place beyond Clive Goodman.
“It was the reason we had to settle the case and in order to settle the case, we had to explain the case to Mr Murdoch and get his authority to settle, so clearly it was discussed.
“I can’t remember the conversation and there isn’t a note of it. The conversation lasted about 15 minutes. It was discussed, but exactly what was said I can’t remember.”
Mr Murdoch authorised him to reach a settlement with Mr Taylor’s lawyers, but he did not recall the NI chief executive naming a specific figure for the payout, said Mr Crone.
"If a payment of £425,000 could prevent the launch of four other potentially expensive legal cases, then that would be “a good course of action from my point of view”, said Mr Crone.
“If we had to pay way over the odds with Mr Taylor, especially with a confidentiality clause which he asked for, then that is a good course of action,” he told the committee.
Mr Myler confirmed Mr Crone’s recollection that the two of them went to Mr Murdoch to tell him about the existence of the document and its implications for Mr Taylor’s claim.
Mr Crone denied misleading the committee during a previous appearance in 2009 about the significance of the “For Neville” email or about the question of whether News International demanded confidentiality over the Taylor settlement.
“We did not underestimate or mislead you in any way whatsoever about the importance of that email,” Mr Crone told committee chairman John Whittingdale.
After demanding that he read out a transcript of his 2009 evidence in which he denied that the company used the settlement in the hope of maintaining secrecy over phone-hacking, Mr Watson asked Mr Crone: “Are you misleading us now or did you mislead us in 2009?”
Mr Crone replied that there was “a difference between secrecy and confidentiality”.
In response to the former NGN legal chief’s repeated claims that he could not remember details of the phone-hacking saga, Mr Watson asked in a scathing tone: “Are you not familiar with the Taylor case, Mr Crone?”
Mr Crone – who quit as NGN legal chief earlier this year amid the furore over the phone-hacking scandal – replied that he had not looked at the Taylor file since last giving evidence to the committee two years ago.
Under close questioning from the committee, Mr Crone denied having promised Mr Goodman that he would keep his job if he avoided implicating the company in any wrong-doing in relation to phone-hacking.
It was Andy Coulson – who was editor of the Sunday tabloid at the time of Goodman’s crimes and went on to serve as David Cameron’s director of communications at 10 Downing Street – who sought to ensure that the reporter was not sacked, he said.
“Mr Coulson had conversations with me on two or three occasions in which he said if Clive is guilty and sentenced, when he has served his sentence Mr Coulson was hoping that he could persuade the company that Clive Goodman could come back and work for the company, albeit not in a reporter’s capacity,” said Mr Crone.
“When I spoke to Clive... I relayed that to him.”
Mr Crone said he thought it would be possible to find a place for Goodman - possibly as a sub-editor – and was “annoyed” when the company wrote to Goodman after his sentencing to tell him he was being summarily dismissed.
He said he felt “quite sorry for Clive”, who had been “pessimistic and depressed and worried about his family and his future”.
Mr Crone defended the company’s decision to pay for Mr Goodman’s legal defence as “the proper, decent and correct thing to do”.
But he said he had nothing to do with the decision to continue to pay him a salary during his jail sentence or to give him a £240,000 pay-off after his dismissal.
Mr Watson told him that his answers suggested that he did not regard Goodman’s eavesdropping activities as “gross misconduct”.
“You thought it was a reporter’s job at the News of the World,” said the Labour MP. “As far as you were concerned, the whole problem was that he was caught.
“That’s why you told Goodman he could have his job back if he didn’t implicate the newspaper... You promised him his job in order to suppress evidence of criminality at the News of the World and that is why James Murdoch sanctioned the payment to Gordon Taylor and why you agreed to pay Glenn Mulcaire’s legal fees.”
Mr Crone responded that there was “no truth at all” in Mr Watson’s claims.