James Murdoch: "Over the odds" settlements were not a coverup

James Murdoch underwent a grilling at the Leveson Inquiry this morning, and denied accusations that he approved “over the odds” phone hacking settlements to prevent further damage to the reputation of News International.

The former chairman of News International denied the claims that the settlements were used to prevent details of more widespread hacking allegations coming into the public domain.

Referring to a settlement in the case of football Chief Gordon Taylor, in which both Taylor and News International sought confidentiality, Robert Jay QC described the payout, believed to be in the region of £700,000 in 2008, as “hush money.” Murdoch denied these claims, explaining that he had received advice from lawyers not to pursue the case further, to prevent events of the past being “dragged up”.

Jay also suggested that Taylor sought a higher payout because he was aware of the reputational damage that News International could have been subjected to as a result of his claim, though Murdoch denied ever hearing any discussion of the case as one of blackmail.

When asked if Murdoch considered the payout to be an extraordinary amount, he said: “I was told sufficient information to authorise them to go and negotiate at a higher level. I was not told sufficient information to turn over a load of stones that I was told had already been turned over.”

Murdoch added that he left it to Colin Myler, editor of the News of the World, and legal manager Tom Crone to negotiate the fee. A memo from Crone suggested that Myler was becoming increasingly frustrated with Taylor, because he felt he was attempting to blackmail the organisation.

The inquiry also heard details of a meeting on 10 June 2008, when the full extent of phone hacking was believed to be revealed in the “For Neville” email, and Taylor’s case was discussed. Murdoch denied that he had seen the email which suggested that phone hacking at News of the World was more widespread than one rogue reporter. Murdoch also claimed that the purpose of the meeting was not to bring him up to speed on the whole story.

In the same meeting, Jay suggested that Crone and Myler were “very keen” for the Taylor issue to be resolved, “to transmit the message to you that if you didn’t there were serious reputational risks to the company”.

Murdoch denied the suggestion that there was a failure of governance within the company, and that there was a cover-up of evidence linking others at News of the World to Mulcaire. He explained that he had been given “repeated assurances that the newsroom had been investigated,” and that ethics training had been undergone, and was continually ongoing.

When referred to the settlement of Max Clifford, Murdoch said he was not aware of the size of the claim. He added: “My understanding was that there was a litigation pending with Mr. Clifford but it was decided, that because there was a commercial relationship he and Rebekah Brooks wanted to re-establish, they settled it at that.”

Murdoch also recognised that the corporation had been too quick to dismiss Guardian claims in 2009, telling the court he was advised it was a smear campaign. He added: “”No matter where something comes from, whether it’s a commercial or political rival, being more dispassionate, forensic and understanding is very important.” Murdoch also acknowledged that they needed to assess allegations of wrongdoing in a way which was “dispassionate and forensic”, and regretted the “cavalier” attitude of News of the World.

James Murdoch’s testimony will continue throughout the afternoon.

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Paul Dacre refuses to withdraw "mendacious smears" statement

As the first module of the Leveson Inquiry drew to a close yesterday, Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre refused to retract a statement accusing actor Hugh Grant of “mendacious smears” against his company unless Grant agreed to take back the “toxic and explosive” statements made about the Mail.

In a heated debate Dacre and David Sherborne, counsel for the core participant victims, discussed answerphone messages left for Grant from a “plummy-voiced woman,” described in a 2007 Mail on Sunday article. In his evidence to the Inquiry in November, Grant suggested that the information for the story, which suggested his relationship with Jemima Khan was on the rocks, could only have been accessed by phone hacking.

Dacre, who was recalled to give evidence on the issue for a second time this week, said: “Our group did not hack phones and I rather resent your continued insinuations that we did,” adding that he had given the Inquiry his “unequivocal word” on the matter earlier in the week.

Dacre accused Sherborne of “attacking my group rather unpleasantly”. Referring to Grant as the “poster boy for Hacked Off,” Dacre went on to add that the actor “is obsessed by trying to drag the Daily Mail into another newspaper’s scandal.”

Lord Justice Leveson Leveson suggested that the editor may need to appear before the Inquiry again at a later date. Dacre replied: ” I have shown this week I am prepared to devote a lot of time to this.”

Heather Mills, who also appeared before the Inquiry yesterday, said she had “never” played voicemail recordings to former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan. In his evidence to the Inquiry last December, Morgan claimed he had heard voicemail tapes, in which Mills’ then partner Sir Paul McCartney sang an apology and asked for forgiveness, that had been obtained legitimately, but he refused to “compromise” his source.

Mills added: “I couldn’t quite believe that he would even try to insinuate [that], a man that has written nothing but awful things about me for years, would relish in telling the court if I had played a voicemail message to him.”

The court also heard how Mills had recorded over 64 hours of footage of alleged harassment from journalists, including evidence, shown to the court of a car chase involving paparazzi which resulted in a crash.

Thursday’s session also focused on bullying within the journalism industry, hearing a number of anonymous testimonies from reporters. Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) presented 12 written accounts to the court, detailing “tremendous pressure,” “macho culture” and other “degrading” treatment.

One testimony described a journalist being forced to write “anti-Islam stories”, and being called the “token lefty” when they complained. The journalist described being “in tears” at the treatment, but explained that it continued.

Another said: “three or four staff suffered physical collapses, almost certainly to some extent as a result of the stress.”

Former News of the World news editor Ian Edmondson also described a “culture of bullying” at the newspaper, explaining that “you will do what you are told”. Edmondson said that everything was dictated by the editor and explained editor Colin Myler, who replaced Andy Coulson following his resignation in 2007, continued the newsroom bullying.

Edmondson also denied drafting emails sent by Neville Thurlbeck, former chief reporter of the News of the World, to women involved in an orgy with ex-motorsports boss Max Mosley in 2008, though he added it was “more likely that I would have asked” Thurlbeck to contact them.

Edmondson told the Inquiry he believed the emails to be a “threat”, chiming with the inference of Mr Justice Eady that the messages amounted to blackmail, as suggested in the judgment following Mosley’s successful privacy action against the News of the World in the same year.

He was also quizzed about extracts of Kate McCann’s diary that appeared in the paper in 2008, contradicting claims made by Myler that Edmondson had sought permission to publish from the McCanns’ spokesman, Clarence Mitchell. Asked if he had led editor Myler to believe he had “made it clear” to Mitchell that the paper had the whole diary and planned to publish parts, Edmondson replied: “No.”

Appearing via video link, Darryn Lyons of photo agency Big Pictures, explained that his photographers tried to stay in line with the PCC code, but added that photographers, picture agencies, and publishers no longer know where they stood in the industry.

“Celebrities court publicity when they want to, and all of a sudden they want to switch it off.  I don’t  agree people should be hounded up and down the street. I do agree people should be photographed in public places, we have a free press and a free press should be able to work in public places,” he said.

When asked about the legal case against his group brought by actress Sienna Miller regarding photographs taken of her on holiday, Lyons said that paparazzi had been taking pictures of people on holiday since “Brigitte Bardot was seen sunning herself on the beaches of St Tropez”.

PR veteran Max Clifford told the Inquiry that he had agreed his own hacking settlement with former NotW editor Rebekah Brooks over a “quiet lunch in Mayfair.” Clifford agreed to £220,000 a year for three years plus legal costs, and to provide the newspaper with tip-offs.

Clifford said he believed the phone hacking scandal at the News of the World and the Leveson Inquiry had “frightened people”. He added that he was aware of “several stories that would have dominated the headlines,” over recent months that had not been published.

The Inquiry will resume with module two, examining the relationship between the press and the police, on 28 February.

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