News Corp lifts phone-hack law firm gag

A law firm barred from answering allegations that it failed to raise the alarm over evidence of police bribes at News International has been authorised to talk to police and MPs.

Harbottle & Lewis has come under renewed pressure to clarify why it did not hand over files to the police while representing the newspaper group.

It followed claims by Lord Macdonald, the former director of public prosecutions, that a police probe into payments to officers could have been launched as far back as 2007.

News Corporation‘s management and standards committee announced that its British arm, News International, has given the law firm permission to answer questions from Scotland Yard and Parliamentary committees.

It released a statement last night that said: “News Corporation’s management and standards committee can confirm that News International has today authorised the law firm Harbottle & Lewis to answer questions from the Metropolitan Police Service and parliamentary select committees in respect of what they were asked to do.

“The MSC is authorised to co-operate fully with all relevant investigations and inquiries in the News of the World phone hacking case, police payments and all other related issues across News International, as well as conducting its own enquiries where appropriate.”

Harbottle & Lewis took possession of hundreds of internal emails from the News of the World in 2007 after being hired by News International to defend a claim for wrongful dismissal by former royal reporter Clive Goodman, who was jailed at the Old Bailey for phone hacking.

‘Serious criminal offences’

The company had previously said News International had declined to release it from professional duties of confidentiality, effectively preventing it from responding to “any inaccurate statements or contentions”.

During the extraordinary Culture, Media and Sport committee hearing earlier that day James Murdoch insisted a letter written by the law firm made the company believe phone hacking was a “matter of the past”.

That helped explain why it had taken a long time for new information to come out, he added.

“It was one of the bases for … the push back the company made against new allegations,” he said.

“It was one of the pillars of the environment around the place that led the company to believe all these things were a matter of the past.”

In another committee meeting Lord Macdonald told how he had discovered files containing “evidence of serious criminal offences”.

He reported back directly to the News Corporation board and advised them to hand the evidence over to the police.

Home Affairs committee chairman Keith Vaz ramped up pressure, writing to the law firm’s managing partner to request “why the evidence they held was not acted upon sooner”.

Boost for Operation Weeting

Meanwhile, Scotland Yard has beefed up its team tackling phone hacking after a “significant increase” in the workload.

Officers working on the inquiry have been been boosted from 45 to 60 after a “significant increase in the workload”, deputy assistant commissioner Sue Akers said.

She said the move came as officers experienced a “surge of inquiries and requests for assistance from the public and solicitors” as the scandal snowballed over the last fortnight.

The announcement came after MPs called on the Government to provide more funds for Operation Weeting, the police hacking probe, warning that any delay in completing it would “seriously delay” the start of the public inquiry announced by the Prime Minister.

Akers added: “I have said all along that I would keep the resources under review and this has led to the increase.

“Similarly, if the demand decreases, I will release officers back to other duties.”

A Home Affairs Committee report praised Akers’ decision to contact all potential victims of phone hacking by the News of the World.

But they said they were “alarmed” that only 170 have so far been informed, adding that “up to 12,800 people may have been affected”.

Home Affairs Committee chairman Keith Vaz said: “This is excellent news. The extra resources will assist to help move things along much more quickly.”

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