Murdoch settles lawsuits, but dangers still lurk

AP News

2/23/2012 8:46:39 PM - AP News

Rupert Murdoch's News International has succeeded in settling a first wave of phone hacking lawsuits, but a report that the British newspaper company ordered the deletion of legally sensitive emails in 2009 shows that the scandal isn't dying down anytime soon.

Murdoch's company was hit by some 60-odd lawsuits following revelations that his News of the World tabloid routinely intercepted the voicemails of politicians, celebrities, pop stars and sports figures in its relentless quest for scoops. One of the last hold-outs, former teen singing sensation Charlotte Church, announced her settlement Thursday through lawyers at England's High Court.

The settlements may have stopped potentially embarrassing disclosures from being aired in open court, but dozens more cases are in the pipeline and a report in the Daily Telegraph late Thursday showed that documents still had a way of leaking out into the public domain.

The Telegraph published secret court documents which alleged that in November 2009, News International had ordered the deletion of emails which "could be unhelpful in the context of future litigation in which an NI (News International) company is a defendant."

Although the documents quote News International as warning that its email deletion policy had to be in compliance "with legal and regulatory requirements," the notion that it had tried to destroy evidence at a time when Murdoch's son James was in charge could further undermine the 39-year-old's credibility as heir apparent to his father's media empire, which includes Fox, the New York Post, and The Wall Street Journal.

News International declined to comment on the report.

That News International tried to hide evidence of phone hacking has already been established. Last month victims' lawyers said they'd agreed to the settlements in return for an admission that managers at the News of the World's publisher "knew about the wrongdoing and sought to conceal it by deliberately deceiving investigators and destroying evidence" _ including destroying computers belonging to those implicated in the scandal.

But the Telegraph, which said it obtained the documents from a High Court judge, goes into new detail. The paper published a 19-page generic claim form drawn up by victims' lawyers which, among other things, state that hundreds of thousands of emails were deleted "on nine separate occasions," and that one executive instructed an employee to remove seven boxes of records relating to them from the company's storage facility.

The paper went on to quote a News International email sent in the wake of actress Sienna Miller's lawsuit against News International in late 2010.

Miller's claim demanded that documents related to her case be preserved, but the claim said that the email _ sent by an unnamed member of the company's technical staff _ said "there is a senior NI management requirement to delete this data as quickly as possible."

The phone hacking scandal has already led to the resignation of a slew of Murdoch lieutenants and senior police officials blamed for failing to tackle the illegal practices at News International. As court proceedings and a reinvigorated police investigation run their course, lawyers and lawmakers are also trying to determine who spearheaded the unsuccessful attempt to bury the scandal after it first erupted in 2006.

James Murdoch has denied being a party to the coverup, blaming his former underlings for keeping him in the dark about what was going on. They have in turn accused their former boss of not telling the truth about what he knew and when.

Meanwhile the lawsuits keep coming, including one from Cherie Blair, the wife of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is taking the company to court over allegation that her phone messages were intercepted too.

Details about the terms of Church's settlement were not disclosed Thursday, but they may be made public next week.

Church, a popular singer who is now 25, has been famous in Britain since her early teens. In December she testified before Britain's media ethics committee, complaining bitterly about how Rupert Murdoch's tabloids had used illegal means to pry into her private life.

She said the constant media scrutiny was unbearable, complaining that a tabloid reported she was pregnant before she had even told her parents, news she felt had to come either from surveillance or phone hacking.

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Online:

The Daily Telegraph's report: http://tgr.ph/xrQm5F

Raphael Satter can be reached at: http://twitter.com/razhael

(This version CORRECTS Adds 'no comment' from News International. Corrects date of Sienna Miller's legal action. This story is part of AP's general news, financial and entertainment services. For global distribution.)