A legal adviser to Rupert Murdoch's newspapers warned the company three years ago there was overwhelming evidence that several senior journalists at the News of the World were using illegal methods, according to documents released Tuesday.
The documents bolster claims that high-ranking executives of Murdoch's News Corp. global media empire were aware that phone hacking at the tabloid was more widespread than they let on.
British lawmakers investigating the hacking scandal, which incensed the British public, prompted the arrest of more than a dozen journalists and forced Murdoch to shut down the News of the World, released a copy of the opinion provided to Murdoch's company and attorneys by lawyer Michael Silverleaf in June 2008.
In it, Silverleaf says there is "overwhelming evidence of the involvement of a number of senior ... journalists in the illegal inquiries."
At the time, the newspaper was being sued by soccer players' association chief Gordon Taylor over alleged phone hacking.
Silverleaf wrote in his opinion that News Group Newspapers, publisher of the News of the World and referred to as NGN, should increase its offer for a settlement with Taylor.
Silverleaf said "at least three" journalists appeared to have been "intimately involved" in illegal research into the affairs of Taylor. In addition to spying on Taylor, Silverleaf noted there was "substantial surrounding material" documenting the extent to which reporters tried to gain illegal access to information about other individuals.
"In the light of these facts there is a powerful case that there is (or was) a culture of illegal information access used at NGN in order to produce stories for publication," he wrote.
The newspaper later settled with Taylor out of court for 700,000 pounds ($1.1 million).
Executives at News Corp. insisted until early this year that phone hacking had been the work one rogue reporter. Murdoch shut down the tabloid in July, after evidence emerged that its reporters illegally hacked into the voice mails of celebrities, politicians and even crime victims in search of scoops.
The scandal has forced the resignations off top Murdoch executives in Britain and the U.S., two senior British police officers and Prime Minister David Cameron's communications chief, a former News of the World Editor.
While apologizing for the wrongdoing, Murdoch and his son and heir apparent James have insisted they were not aware of it.
But former News of the World editor Colin Myler and former legal adviser Tom Crone have insisted that James Murdoch was wrong when he claimed in testimony to British lawmakers not to have been aware of a critical piece of evidence suggesting that illegal espionage was far more widespread than was being claimed.
The documents released Tuesday were provided to British parliamentarians by Farrer & Co., a law firm which advised News International executives on a payout to Taylor.
Among the materials were a May 24, 2008, email sent by Crone to Myler and a lawyer which contains a memo drafted ahead of a meeting with James Murdoch.
In it, Crone notes that Taylor had obtained a court order forcing police and Britain's Information Commissioner to release documents including a list of News of the World journalists alongside a list of infringements of data-protection rules, such as illegally tracing the owners of car registration and mobile phone numbers.
"A number of those names are still with us and some of them have moved to prominent positions" within the News of the World and The Sun, Crone wrote, arguing the company should settle with Taylor.
"Our position is very perilous," Crone's memo reads. "This evidence ... is fatal to our case."
James Murdoch, who appeared before the lawmakers' committee in July, has been recalled to give further evidence Nov. 10 about the discrepancies between his testimony and others' recollections.