Friday, July 8, 2011

Phone hacking: Police probe suspected deletion of emails by NI executive By Nick Davies and Amelia Hill

• 'Massive quantities' of archive allegedly deleted
• Emails believed to be between News of the World editors

                                                                                                                   Photo: Graeme Robertson
News International's claims of cooperating with police over phone hacking scandal brought into question.

 Police are investigating evidence that a News International executive may have deleted millions of emails from an internal archive, in an apparent attempt to obstruct Scotland Yard's inquiry into the phone-hacking scandal.
 The archive is believed to have reached back to January 2005 revealing daily contact between News of the World editors, reporters and outsiders, including private investigators. The messages are potentially highly valuable both for the police and for the numerous public figures who are suing News International.
 According to legal sources close to the police inquiry, a senior executive is believed to have deleted 'massive quantities' of the archive on two separate occasions, leaving only a small fraction to be disclosed. One of the alleged deletions is said to have been made at the end of January this year, just as Scotland Yard was launching Operation Weeting, its new inquiry into the affair.
 The allegation directly contradicts repeated claims from News International that it is co-operating fully with police in order to expose its history of illegal news-gathering. It is likely to be seen as evidence that the company could not pass a 'fit and proper person' test for its proposed purchase of BSkyB.
 A Guardian investigation has found that, in addition to deleting emails, the company has also:
infuriated police by leaking sensitive information in spite of an undertaking to police that it would keep it confidential; and
risked prosecution for perverting the course of justice by trying to hide the contents of a senior reporter's desk after he was arrested by Weeting detectives in earlier this year.
 News International originally claimed that the archive of emails did not exist. Last December, its Scottish editor, Bob Bird, told the trial of Tommy Sheridan in Glasgow that the emails had been lost en route to Mumbai. Also in December, the company's solicitor Julian Pike from Farrer and Co provided the high court with a statement claiming that it was unable to retrieve emails which were more than six months old.
 The first hint that this was not true came in late January when News International handed Scotland Yard evidence which led to the immediate sacking of its news editor Ian Edmondson and to the launch of Operation Weeting. It was reported at the time that this evidence consisted of three old emails.
 Three months later, on 23 March this year, Pike formally apologised to the high court and acknowledged that News International could locate emails as far back as 2005 and that no emails had ever been lost en route to Mumbai or anywhere else in India. In a signed statement seen by the Guardian, Pike said he had been misinformed by the News of the World's in-house lawyer, Tom Crone, who had told him that he, too, had been misled. He offered no explanation for the misleading evidence given by Bob Bird.
 The original archive was said to contain half a terabyte of data - equivalent to 500 editions of Encyclopaedia Britannica. But police now believe that there was an effort to substantially destroy the archive before News International handed over their new evidence in January. They believe they have identified the executive responsible by following an electronic audit trail. They have attempted to retrieve the data which they fear was lost. The Crown Prosecution Service is believed to have been asked whether the executive can be charged with perverting the course of justice.
 At the heart of the affair is a specialist data company, Essential Computing, based in Clevedon, near Bristol. Staff there have been interviewed by Operation Weeting. One source speculated that it was this company which had compelled News International to admit that the archive existed.
 The Guardian understands that Essential Computing has co-operated with police and has provided evidence about an alleged attempt by the News International executive to destroy part of the archive while they were working with it. This is said to have happened after the executive discovered that the company retained material of which News International was unaware.
 The alleged deletion has caused tension between News International and Scotland Yard, who are also angry over recent leaks. When the Murdoch company handed over evidence of their journalists' involvement in bribing police officers in late June, they wanted to make a public announcement, claiming credit for their assistance to police. They were warned that this would interfere with inquiries and finally agreed that they would keep the entire matter confidential until early August, to allow police to make arrests. In the event, this week, a series of leaks has led Scotland Yard to conclude that News International breached the agreement.
 There was friction too earlier this year when Weeting detectives arrested a senior journalist. When they went to the News of the World's office to search his desk, they found that all of its contents had been removed and lodged with a firm of solicitors, who initially refused to hand it over. The solicitors eventually complied. A file is believed to have been sent to the Crown Prosecution service seeking advice on whether anybody connected with the incident should be charged.


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