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Ex-aides assert James Murdoch knew of hacking

Scotland Yard to pursue claim of police bribes

By Jill Lawless and Raphael G. Satter
Associated Press / July 22, 2011

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LONDON - James Murdoch’s former legal adviser and a former editor contested the testimony he gave to British lawmakers, saying yesterday that he was told years ago about an e-mail that suggested the rot at his Sunday tabloid was far more widespread than previously claimed.

Their statement could deal a blow to the credibility of Rupert Murdoch’s son as the family struggles to limit the damage from a phone-hacking scandal that has already cost the media empire one of its British tabloids, two top executives, and a billion-dollar bid for control of a satellite broadcaster.

Meanwhile, Scotland Yard, still reeling from allegations that it turned a blind eye to the scandal, was asked to investigate another explosive claim: that journalists bribed officers to locate people by tracking their cellphone signals.

The practice is known as “pinging’’ because of the way cellphone signals bounce off relay towers as they try to find reception. Jenny Jones, a member of the board that oversees the Metropolitan Police Authority, called for the inquiry into the alleged payoffs by journalists at Murdoch’s now-defunct News of the World.

James Murdoch, in a grilling by lawmakers on Tuesday, batted away claims that he knew the full extent of the illegal espionage at the News of the World when he approved a massive payout in 2008 to soccer players’ association chief Gordon Taylor, one of the phone hacking victims.

Murdoch’s News International had long maintained that the eavesdropping was limited to a single rogue reporter, Clive Goodman, and the private investigator he was working with to break into voice mails of members of the royal household.

But an e-mail uncovered during legal proceedings seemed to cast doubt on that claim. It contained a transcript of an illegally obtained conversation, drawn up by a junior reporter and marked “for Neville’’ - an apparent reference to the News of the World’s chief reporter, Neville Thurlbeck.

Because it seemed to implicate others in the hacking, the e-mail had the potential to blow a hole through News International’s fiercely held contention that one reporter alone had engaged in hacking.

If Murdoch knew about the e-mail - and was aware of its implication - it would lend weight to the notion that he approved the payoff in an effort to bury the scandal.

Murdoch told lawmakers he was not aware of the e-mail at the time, but in a statement late yesterday, former News International legal manager Tom Crone and former News of the World editor Colin Myler contradicted him.

“We would like to point out that James Murdoch’s recollection of what he was told when agreeing to settle the Gordon Taylor litigation was mistaken,’’ they said. “In fact, we did inform him of the ‘for Neville’ e-mail which had been produced to us by Gordon Taylor’s lawyers.’’

News International quickly fired back a denial, saying James Murdoch stood by his statement to lawmakers.

Almost at the same time, it announced it had fired yet another journalist in connection with the scandal - identified in the British media as a former News of the World editor who now works at its sister newspaper, The Sun.

The request for a pinging inquiry, meanwhile, stems from an allegation made by the late Sean Hoare, a former News of the World reporter who spoke to The New York Times about skullduggery at the tabloid.

Hoare - who was fired in 2005 - said officers were paid nearly $500 per trace. The paper cited a second, unnamed former News of the World journalist as corroborating Hoare’s claim.

Hoare was found dead on Monday at his home near London; police say the death is not suspicious.

Pinging joins a host of alleged media misdeeds being put under the microscope as police, politicians, and the public weigh allegations that journalists at Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World engaged in years of lawless behavior to get scoops.

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