U.K. Hacking Scandal: Has the Smoking Gun Been Found?

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Clive Goodman, News of the World's former royal editor, in 2006. (Photo: Alessia Pierdominico / Reuters)

If Britain’s hacking scandal were a Hollywood thriller—and perhaps the most predictable outcome of this tangled saga is that it will be—the audience would be left guessing until a few seconds before the credits rolled which characters to believe. Should they take the word of a world famous tycoon and his clean-cut son? Give weight to the testimony of the tycoon’s long-time consigliere? Would they be foolish to trust assurances from a newspaper editor with the face and hair of Botticelli’s Venus and the sartorial instincts of a reality TV starlet? What about the boyish former editor turned adviser to an equally boyish Prime Minister? Or a corporate legal eagle? How much credence ought they lend to a letter from a convicted criminal?

That last question could determine the fates of Rupert Murdoch, his son James, Les Hinton, Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson, Tom Crone and others who held positions of authority at News Corporation or its U.K. subsidiary News International when its Sunday tabloid the News of the World zealously pried into the private lives of others but failed to investigate its own secrets. On Aug. 16, the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee published documents it has amassed since the Murdochs and Brooks gave evidence almost a month earlier. At the July 19 hearing the senior Murdoch mostly dodged a shaving cream pie, emerging with only a few stains on his jacket. Missiles nestling among the documents may prove harder to evade, especially an astonishing letter written by Clive Goodman, who served several years as Royal Editor of the News of the World and a mere four months for intercepting phone messages intended for Princes William and Harry, their household and friends. A private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, was also jailed.

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The letter, written by Goodman to News International’s Group Human Resources Director on March 2, 2007, shortly after Goodman’s release from prison, sets out his response to his dismissal for “alleged gross misconduct.” Goodman sounds aggrieved. After all, he writes,

other members of staff were carrying out same illegal procedures…This practice was widely discussed in the daily editorial conference, until explicit reference to it was banned by the Editor [not named, but presumed to be Coulson].

Goodman adds:

Tom Crone [at that time legal manager for the News of the World and its daily sister the Sun] and the Editor promised on many occasions that I could come back to a job at the newspaper if I did not implicate the paper or any of its staff in my mitigation plea. I did not, and I expect the paper to honor its promise to me.

The letter is copied to Hinton, who would later that year pass the tiller of News International to Brooks and take up a new job in the U.S. as CEO of Dow Jones & Company.  Also cc’d is Stuart Kuttner, then Managing Editor of the News of the World, who was arrested on Aug. 1 by police investigating allegations of phone hacking (Operation Weeting) and a second team looking into corrupt payments to police (Operation Elveden). Coulson and Brooks had earlier been arrested in connection with the same inquiries.

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Nobody arrested by these inquiries—including Goodman, whose jail term for hacking did not prevent his July 8 arrest by officers investigating the potentially more serious crime of bribing police for information—has yet been charged, and all must be considered innocent. Except, of course, for ex-lag Goodman, whose reliability may be questioned by those who appear to be implicated by the letter. Disclosure in the new batch of documents of a hefty financial settlement Goodman received after his dismissal is also raising eyebrows and questions. A full year’s salary of £90,502.08 plus £140,000 in compensation and a further £13,000 to reimburse legal fees appears a surprisingly golden handshake for a former employee convicted of criminal behavior. “If Goodman is accurate, the letter is the smoking gun,” says Tom Watson, the Labour MP and member of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, who may well find himself impersonated by a square-jawed box office hero as and when the story finds its way on to the big screen. In the meantime, he says, “we’re dragging out the facts of this case day by day, week by week.”

That process will see the recall by the committee, in early September, of Crone and Colin Myler, the last editor of the News of the World, both of whom contacted the committee after the Murdochs’ joint appearance to dispute James Murdoch’s testimony that he was not aware, when he authorized an out-of-court payment to English football executive Gordon Taylor, that Taylor’s messages had been intercepted or that Goodman and Mulcaire may not have been the only miscreants. Murdoch has reiterated this point in a submission to the committee. “I did not ask for any evidence,” he writes. “I was content to reply upon Mr Myler and Mr Crone.”

The committee is likely to recall James Murdoch anyway. A prominent London media law firm, Harbottle & Lewis, retained by News International during Goodman’s dispute with the company over his dismissal, has lodged an account of its work for News International with the committee that appears to challenge evidence given by both Murdochs. Rupert Murdoch said the law firm had been appointed “to find out what the hell was going on.” The law firm demurs:

The retainer [with News International] was expressly limited to the context of Mr Goodman’s employment dispute…There was absolutely no question of the firm being asked to provide News International with a clean bill of health which it could deploy years later in wholly different contexts for wholly different purposes.

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James Murdoch cited a 2007 letter from Harbottle & Lewis as the basis for News International’s repeated assertions that Goodman was a lone rogue reporter on NOTW. The law firm rejects this interpretation of its findings.

[Harbottle & Lewis] was asked to search through some emails which had been assembled by News International’s server…It was given no access to other documents or witnesses…It was a short and limited exercise lasting two weeks and mostly involving junior employees. All of this was known to News International.

In a statement News International acknowledges “the seriousness of the materials disclosed to the police and Parliament.” In the movie version (Apocalypse NOTW perhaps) the audience would recognize this moment as the beginning of the final act, no matter how many twists and cliffhangers were still to come. Observers of the real-life scandal have no such reassurance, with the police investigations nowhere near completion, a judicial inquiry just gearing up, and private law suits pending. Better stockpile the popcorn; this is a multiple reeler.

Catherine Mayer is London Bureau Chief at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @Catherine_Mayer or on Facebook at Facebook/Amortality-the-Pleasures-and-Perils-of-Living-Agelessly . You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME .

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