Difficult e-mail questions for News International

Policeman walking into News International offices Image copyright Getty Images

The big question is why News International didn't hand over the e-mails about alleged payments to police for royal family contact details until 20 June of this year (see my earlier post for details on these alleged payments).

Some News International and News of the World executives were in possession of the e-mails in the spring of 2007.

They were also passed by News International for review by the firm of solicitors, Harbottle & Lewis.

But at the time, they were not passed to the police or to other authorities for further investigation - even though, in the words of a statement today by the Metropolitan Police, the e-mails are prima facie evidence of "alleged payments by corrupt journalists to corrupt police officers".

In fact Harbottle & Lewis wrote a letter dated 29 May 2007 to Jon Chapman of News International which simply says that the firm of solicitors "did not find anything in those e-mails which appeared to us to be reasonable evidence that [the former News of the World royal editor] Clive Goodman's illegal actions were known about and supported by both or either of Andy Coulson, the Editor, and Neil Wallis, the deputy editor".

It was only after News International took a policy decision at the beginning of this year to work closely with the Metropolitan Police to investigate what really went on at the News of the World prior to 2007 that the e-mails turned up again.

Questions, questions

The e-mails had been alluded to in evidence provided to MPs on the Commons culture, media and sport committee for their 2010 report into privacy and the media - which prompted the Metropolitan Police of Operation Weeting to ask News International for the e-mails.

News International's relatively new management initially could not find the e-mails, but eventually tracked them down to Harbottle & Lewis's offices and retrieved them.

The company then asked the solicitors Hickman and Rose to review the Harbottle & Lewis e-mail dossier (which had originally been compiled by News International in 2007 to help with a dispute it was having with Clive Goodman on his severance terms).

Hickman and Rose then suggested that Lord (Ken) Macdonald - the former Director of Public Prosecutions, now back in private practice as a barrister - should review the e-mails.

In May, he agreed to do so on behalf of News International's parent company, News Corporation.

In June, Lord Macdonald advised News Corporation's board that the e-mails were indicative of criminal behaviour by the News of the World and should be handed to the police. News Corporation's board, chaired by Rupert Murdoch, accepted the advice.

On 20 June, the dossier was passed to Cressida Dick, assistant commissioner in the Metropolitan Police.

If the big question, as I said at the start, is why it took four years for News International to hand over the e-mails to the police, there are some subsidiary questions:

  1. Which executives at News International were aware of the e-mails in 2007?
  2. Did Harbottle & Lewis give any advice to News International on the alleged criminal activity described in the e-mails?
  3. How was it that James Murdoch, chairman of News International, didn't have the full picture of wrongdoing at the News of the World till recently (as he says)?
  4. Will the Commons culture, media and sport committee feel that the Harbottle & Lewis letter, which was shown to them by News International, gave MPs a fair impression of wrongdoing at the News of the World?