LONDON (AP) — A former top lawyer for Rupert Murdoch's British newspapers insisted Wednesday that he told the mogul's son there was evidence of widespread phone hacking more than three years before a scandal over the practice erupted.
Tom Crone questioned claims made by James Murdoch — chairman of News International, the British arm of his father's media empire — that he had not been fully informed about an email indicating that hacking was rife.
For many months, News International insisted the illegal accessing of the cell phone voice messages of celebrities and crime victims was confined to reporter Clive Goodman who, along with private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, was jailed in 2007.
But in July the company closed the 168-year-old tabloid, amid public outrage over the disclosure that reporters had hacked the phone of a missing schoolgirl, Milly Dowler, who was later found murdered.
Crone told Britain's inquiry into media standards he was "pretty sure" that during a meeting in June 2008, he showed Murdoch a printed copy of an email that included transcripts of illegally intercepted voice mail messages.
The document is considered a key piece of evidence in proving that News International had attempted to hide the extent of the scandal from the public.
Murdoch has previously told a parliamentary committee investigating phone hacking he hadn't been told about the email.
"What was certainly discussed was the email ... and what it meant in terms of further involvement in phone hacking beyond Goodman and Mulcaire," Crone told the inquiry, referring to the June 2008 meeting.
"What was relayed to Mr. Murdoch was that this document clearly was direct and hard evidence of that being the case," he said.
Crone's evidence marks the strongest challenge yet to the testimony of the 39-year-old Murdoch to lawmakers.
Originally, Murdoch insisted he wasn't aware of the key email when he approved a payout of around 700,000 pounds ($1 million) to phone hacking victim Gordon Taylor — a soccer executive.
But Murdoch has been contradicted both by Crone and News of the World Editor Colin Myler, who both insist they had told him about the email.
Murdoch was eventually forced to make a concession to their versions of events, acknowledging that he had been briefed on the incriminating email — but insisting that its full importance was kept from him.
Evidence published Tuesday by parliament's culture committee has now cast doubt on that claim. A message from Crone, forwarded to Murdoch by Myler in June 2008, laid out the incriminating email's importance — with Crone warning that the document could prompt a "nightmare scenario."
In a letter to legislators, the junior Murdoch acknowledged receiving the message — and replying to it — but he said he hadn't read all of it, explaining that it was sent over the weekend to his BlackBerry, meaning he would have only quickly scanned the first few sentences.
"I was not aware of evidence that pointed to widespread wrongdoing or indicated that further investigation was necessary," Murdoch said in a letter to lawmakers, dated Dec. 12, but published Tuesday.
In new evidence from the parliamentary committee released Wednesday, Crone acknowledged that the tabloid had checked electoral and birth records in a hunt for evidence that two lawyers acting for victims of phone hacking may have had an affair.
Lawyers Mark Lewis and Charlotte Harris were both also put under surveillance by the newspaper, as was lawmaker Tom Watson — a frequent critic of the senior Murdoch.
"Neither check provided any support for the suspicion that Mr. Lewis and Ms. Harris had had or were having a relationship," Crone said in the letter to the panel of legislators, dated Dec. 11.
British Prime Minister David Cameron ordered judge Brian Leveson to head an inquiry into press standards following the disclosure that the News of the World had for years illegally eavesdropped on the voice mail messages of public figures.
Actors Hugh Grant and Sienna Miller, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling and singer Charlotte Church are among those who have given evidence about how they have suffered press abuse.