Did Murdoch pay £700,000 for silence?

When a man of 80 making an apology invokes both his mother, who is 102, and his father, who has been dead for 58 years, he is probably entitled to a hearing. Rupert Murdoch is reported to have done just that, head in hands, in his meeting with the Dowlers. You would need a hard heart to be certain now that he is not sorry.

This has implications for the Commons media committee, which meets him on Tuesday and will have to avoid the appearance of monstering a sorry old man. The public respects penitence. It punished Rebekah Brooks for delaying hers for so long, but I suspect it will think Rupert Murdoch, remarkably, has earned himself the right to at least a little politeness.

It is different for James Murdoch, who has more specific and evidence-based questions to answer, questions based in large measure on material gathered by the committee itself. The key passages are from the committee hearing on 21 July 2009, and the questioning of Colin Myler, then editor of the News of the World, and Tom Crone, then legal manager for that paper and the Sun.

Crone explained that when lawyers for Gordon Taylor of the Professional Footballers’ Association produced two documents appearing to show that at least one and possibly three of the paper’s journalists knew Taylor’s phone had been hacked, both he (Crone) and the paper’s external lawyers immediately agreed they could no longer contest Taylor’s case against the paper for breach of privacy. Tom Watson MP asked the questions.

Watson: When did you tell Rupert Murdoch?
Crone: I did not tell Rupert Murdoch.
Myler: The sequence of events, Mr Watson, is very simple, and this is very clear: Mr Crone advised me, as the editor, what the legal advice was and it was to settle. Myself and Mr Crone then went to see James Murdoch and told him where we were with the situation. Mr Crone then continued with our outside lawyers the negotiation with Mr Taylor. Eventually a settlement was agreed. That was it.
Watson: So James Murdoch took the ultimate decision?
Myler: James Murdoch was advised of the situation and agreed with our legal advice that we should settle.

In subsequent written evidence the company confirmed that James Murdoch not only agreed they should settle, he also authorised the actual payment, although curiously neither the meeting nor the decision was minuted.

The settlement, it is well known, was for £700,000, which Watson described as “a huge amount of money”, and which is certainly far more than Taylor stood to win in the event of outright victory in court. Some reports have suggested that the damages element of the payment was £400,000 (the rest being costs), but that is still out of proportion. By way of comparison, Max Mosley won £60,000 in his privacy case against the same paper, and recently Sienna Miller extracted a reported £100,000 in her hacking suit.

Why pay several times over the odds? The explanation that comes most readily to mind is that it was to secure Mr Taylor’s silence, an explanation that receives support from Mr Taylor’s total silence on the matter since the day of the settlement.

So the committee will ask James Murdoch whether he paid Gordon Taylor £700,000 in an attempt to ensure that he did not talk about or show to anybody the documents which prompted the lawyers to recommend settling. And if that was not the objective, what could it have been?

Last week, in a televised interview on the day he announced the closure of the News of the World, James Murdoch shed a little more light on this: “The company paid out-of-court settlements approved by me. I now know that I did not have a complete picture when I did so. This was wrong and is a matter of serious regret.”

That is apparently his defence: that he ‘did not have a complete picture’ when he authorised this £700,000 payment. He made his decision, according to the company, “following discussions with Colin Myler and Tom Crone”, but he says he “did not have a complete picture”.

Crone left News International last week and Myler ceased to be editor of the News of the World with its closure. Both men, we can be sure, will testify under oath in due course before Lord Justice Leveson’s public inquiry about the picture they gave to the younger Murdoch. It is possible that Gordon Taylor and his lawyers will also do so. In short, James Murdoch (who will also face Leveson) knows that what he says about this to the select committee this week will ultimately be tested pretty rigorously against the evidence of others.

The committee will want to know a lot about that incomplete picture. It will ask how the picture could have been incomplete and yet still unpleasant enough to lead James Murdoch to authorise a payment toTaylorseveral times over the odds for a privacy case. What was missing?

Did Crone and Myler not tell him about the documents (which any normal reader would conclude demonstrated that, at the very least, knowledge of criminal phone hacking was spread more widely at the News of the World than the company was at that time admitting)? That would be an incomplete picture, but it begs the question: if they didn’t tell him, why did he think such a large payment was justified?

Did they tell him thatTaylor’s lawyers had got the documents from the police and did he reason that, if the police had taken no action over them the documents could not be evidence of criminality? That begs the same question: if that was the case, why would he have felt the need to authorise a payment of £700,000?

We could go on like this but it does not get any less suspicious. And then there is the murky business of the settlement with Max Clifford. Perhaps it is better to wait and hear what happens on Tuesday.

Brian Cathcart teaches journalism atKingstonUniversityand tweets at @BrianCathcart

 

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One Comment

  1. Posted 19Jul11 at 8:34 am | Permalink
    Paul, Southampton

    Colin Myler: “Myself and Mr Crone then went to see James Murdoch…”

    Really? From the editor of a national newspaper? Shocking grammar!

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