Rupert Murdoch and ‘the damn lawyers’

“I should have gone there and thrown all the damn lawyers out of the place” (Rupert Murdoch, Leveson Inquiry, Thursday 26th April 2012, p.68)

Amongst the many people and organisations Rupert Murdoch lambasted during his two days in the stand at the Leveson Inquiry this week, lawyers and law firms were particularly prominent.

Lawyers and law firms were variously accused of:

– Orchestrating a cover-up. The Chairman and CEO of NewsCorp claimed that “there’s no question in my mind that maybe even the editor, but certainly beyond that someone took charge of a cover-up which we were victim to”. Pressed by Robert Jay QC about where this culture of cover-up emanated Murdoch said, “I think from within the News of the World and – there were one or two very strong characters there, who I think had been there many, many, many years and were friends with the journalists — or the person I’m thinking of was a friend of the journalists, drinking pal, and was a clever lawyer, and forbade them to go and see the evidence — or there had been statements reporting that this person forbade people to go and report to Mrs Brooks or to James”.

– Failing to investigate properly when commissioned to do so. Of Harbottle and Lewis Murdoch said: “I cannot understand a law firm reading that [the emails provided to them] and not ringing the chief executive of a company and saying, ‘Hey, you’ve got some big problems’.”

– Not telling the truth. Murdoch, answering a question about Mr Justice Eady, suddenly decided to attack Alastair Brett, previously the Times’ in-house lawyer. “I’m much more shocked by the behaviour of Mr Brett in not telling him the truth of a lot of things”.

This is highly risky strategy for Murdoch to take. Lawyers are very unlikely to take such direct attacks lying down. Lawyers also tend to know where the bodies are buried.

Harbottle and Lewis have been partially released from lawyer client privilege. They have already done serious damage to NewsCorp’s reputation by releasing evidence to show that they did not, as James Murdoch suggested to Parliament, give the News of the World a “clean bill of health”. See H&L evidence, and reports on it. Following Murdoch senior’s testimony perhaps they will release more.

Another law firm – one which Rupert Murdoch refrained from attacking this week – may have even more interesting evidence to share. Burton Copeland was asked to conduct investigations at the News of the World way back in 2006/07, as Colin Myler told the Culture, Media Sport Select Committee in July 2009:

“I think the first thing to remember”, Colin Myler said, “is that as soon as Mr Goodman and Mr Mulcaire were arrested News International had an outside firm of solicitors to absolutely oversee the investigation to cooperate with the police, to be a bridgehead, to give whatever facility the police required. It was completely hands-off, if you like, for transparency from the company’s point of view. It was a nine month investigation.” (Q.1384)

Colin Myler and Tom Crone both relied heavily on this Burton Copeland investigation to justify their claim that malpractice did not go beyond Goodman (see January 2011 post, ‘The Burton Copeland Files’). Yet despite requests News Corporation has not agreed to release Burton Copeland from lawyer client privilege so that it can release the evidence it collected.

Tom Crone could be an even greater threat to Mr Murdoch. He was legal affairs manager at News International for over two decades. Though not named in Murdoch’s oral evidence, Tom Crone believed he was the target of the cover-up allegation, and reacted furiously. It was, he said, a “shameful lie”, and “greatly demeans him [Murdoch]”. It would be surprising if Crone did not back up his statement with further evidence.

Murdoch may be partial to Shakespeare’s advice in Henry IV (‘The first thing we do, is kill all the lawyers’), but by wounding and not killing them he may have stored up yet more problems for himself and his company than he had already.

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Richard Moorheadreply
April 27, 2012 at 4:51 pm

Interesting post. There are potential problems with what the lawyers may have done (see here for my views They will be investigated and have to deal with those concerns, but it does not exculpate their clients. In the broader scheme of things, though, it boils down to conspiracy or incompetence on the part of the Murdochs that allowed questionable things to happen. It is possible of course that having moved from a one rogue reporter defence to a one (or rather several) rogue lawyers defence they will have finally hit upon the right rogue, but to establish that they really need to fully release all the lawyers involved from duties of confidence and waive privilege. I have written elsewhere that, in fact, the perpetration of a fraud (the cover up) may be sufficient reason to deny the Murdochs (or others involved) the protection of privilege. It is to be hoped that the impatience with Mr Murdoch on the Burton Copeland file will lead to us see Murdoch required to produce the lawyer’s files of papers. There is a decent legal basis for saying he or Burton Copeland can be so compelled.

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May 3, 2012 at 1:51 pm

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