News Corp. (NWSA:US)’s British publishing unit failed for months to disclose in civil litigation an executive’s e-mail with instructions on hacking the mobile-phone voice mail of a “well-known person.”
The e-mail was found by the company in March during a required search for evidence and was only shared with victims yesterday, after police alerted them to its existence, David Sherborne, a lawyer for dozens of people who had their messages intercepted, said at a London hearing today.
“We had to be told about it by police, even though News International knew about it,” Sherborne said, referring to the unit. “We have a real concern about the way this disclosure is being conducted” because the e-mail is of “enormous significance” in the overall case, he said.
News Corp., the New York-based company controlled by Chairman Rupert Murdoch, is trying to move on from the scandal after the victims’ civil case and a parallel media-ethics probe that began last year revealed damaging e-mails and text messages about hacking and other wrongdoing. Judge Geoffrey Vos, who is overseeing the civil cases, said in January the company destroyed evidence to hide the extent of the problem.
Lawyers with Linklaters LLP, which represents News International, said they discovered the e-mail in the context of a separate phone-hacking search requested by police and that they forgot to give it to victims in the civil case.
Vos said the London-based law firm apologized for the oversight and that he believed its explanation of what happened. The identities of the executive who wrote the e-mail and the person it was about should remain secret, he said, to prevent the information from affecting related criminal cases.
While Sherborne didn’t challenge the explanation, he said the oversight raised concerns the company’s process of carrying out court-ordered searches for e-mail evidence may be inadequate, and that e-mails of equal importance may not yet have been discovered.
The hacking scandal at News Corp.’s News of the World newspaper led to the title’s closure a year ago and triggered a related bribery probe into the company’s Sun tabloid. About 60 people have been arrested, including former News International Chief Executive Officer Rebekah Brooks, who was charged in May with conspiring to cover up the hacking scandal.
The company seeks to settle about 50 combined civil lawsuits before a trial scheduled for February, with lawyers saying the number of victims in the case may rise to about 100 by then. A trial scheduled for earlier this year was canceled after an initial group of test lawsuits were settled.
News International’s lawyer Michael Silverleaf said today about 250 alleged victims have sought out-of-court settlements with the company, using a procedure it created that’s overseen by a former judge. He said about 79 deals have been reached and they aren’t part of the current case.
Vos ordered News International in January to search a former employee’s laptops for new evidence. The company is also examining iPhones used by four unidentified executives after victims said they may contain evidence.
Testifying today at the media-ethics inquiry, Max Mosley, the former president of Formula One, proposed the creation of an independent press tribunal which could levy fines of as much as 10 percent of a publication’s revenue.
“We need a statutory body that can stop the press from going too far,” he said. “A decent journalist will recognize if he got it wrong.”
Mosley, who won a 60,000 pound ($93,800) award against News of the World in 2008 for publishing a story that said he took part in a Nazi-themed “orgy,” said the enforcement process should be completely independent from the government and the media.
“With privacy, money can do nothing to repair the damage to the victim,” according to a document Mosley submitted.
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