What the Hell is going on? Don’t ask your lawyer

After the telegenic distraction of the riots, hackgate rumbles back into life. The DCMS Select Committee has published further correspondence provided to it following the appearances to give evidence of the Murdochs and Rebekah Brooks http://bit.ly/n2CvjI . At the same time, the “smoking gun” of a letter sent by Clive Goodman, the News of the World’s royal correspondent who was imprisoned for phone hacking has surfaced. In this letter, sent to News International as part of Goodman’s attempt to appeal his dismissal for that conviction.

The letter alleges that it was wrong to have dismissed Goodman on the basis of gross misconduct for hacking when it was widely known, discussed and approved of by NotW management including the then editor, Andy Coulson. The law firm Harbottle & Lewis were instructed by NI to advise on the prospects of Goodman’s appeal, were sent a number of emails by NI to review to prepare this advice and advised that there was no evidence to support the allegation that Goodman’s activities were known of by Coulson or his deputy. The Murdochs relied heavily on this advice when giving evidence to the select committee to Harbottle & Lewis’ irritation. This irritation was at least in part due to their inability to respond because doing so may have led to them being seen to have breached their duty of confidence to their client, NI. Since then, NI has agreed to waive the privilege in the legal advice to the extent that it is necessary to enable Harbottle & Lewis to assist in the Police and Parliamentary investigations.

Harbottle & Lewis’ response to the allegations is included in the latest set of documents published by the Select Committee http://bit.ly/nReyCo (this includes at pages B6 and B7, Goodman’s letter). While, unsurprisingly they have sought to (properly) place in context the advice they gave and the limited nature of the advice and instructions, the response is interesting because of what is unsaid. The media are seizing upon Goodman’s letter as being a smoking gun that blows away the defence raised by the Murdochs and Rebekah Brooks that they did not know about hacking and had been advised that it was not more widespread than Goodman and Geoff Mulcaire, the investigator he used (who was also imprisoned for his part in the activities).

However, although it is clear that Harbottle & Lewis were not asked to advise generally on whether there had been criminal activities undertaken by or with the agreement of NotW, they were asked specifically about the allegations raised by Goodman. Goodman also wrote a further letter requesting the disclosure of various items of correspondence and it looks from Harbottle & Lewis’ submission that the correspondence sought by Goodman was what was provided to it for review. This is consistent with the limited instructions (to advise on the Goodman claim). So, even leaving to one side whether it was right for NI to have appeared to rely on the advice from Harbottle & Lewis more generally, one thing that surprisingly does not seem to be disputed by the lawyers is that they concluded that Goodman’s claims, as they were to be pursued by him and on the basis of documents he knew to be in existence, were not supported by the evidence. That does not mean that there was not other evidence to support it, but that this other evidence was not known about by Goodman when writing his apparently damning letter.

The evidence that Goodman thought would support his claim for unfair dismissal did not do so and this is what Harbottle & Lewis have confirmed. What if the file of documents sent for Harbottle & Lewis’ review was incomplete? That certainly is possible on the basis of allegations that NI might have destroyed old records (not necessarily for malign purposes, document retention policies in large businesses are actually Newspeak because they are more about the normal practice for destroying documents). Harbottle & Lewis also note in their submission to the Select Committee (at para 5(l)) that some of the emails they did see were “only in cut off form”.

However, this would have required NI to be seeking advice that it knew to be limited and irrelevant to the limited purpose it was provided for on the basis of an intention to use it for a different purpose at an undefined later date. I don’t like conspiracy theories and think it more likely that NI did send Harbottle & Lewis precisely those documents which Goodman referred to so as to get good advice on the prospects of the litigation then being threatened. As they were documents which would have been likely to have been ordered to have been disclosed in the event of Goodman pursuing his employment claim, it does not really make a lot of sense to have withheld them from Harbottle & Lewis at the time. If NI had wanted a “certificate” to the effect of having done nothing wrong more generally, there are other ways in which it could have achieved this which would have been less convoluted and less susceptible to being found out.

Of course, this is nowhere near the end of the matter, but it does mean that the Goodman letter is incendiary but of limited probative value in itself. It remains the self-serving assertions of a convicted hacker unsupported by the documentary evidence it relied upon. Other documents and the truthfulness and believability of the evidence given by the participants in the events will be needed and without them, there is nothing very much.

UPDATE

I had an interesting exchange with Louise Mensch MP, one of the members of the Select Committee following first publishing this blog post. A point which she picked up on and thought to be particularly important was the series of exchanges between Harbottle & Lewis and NI on finalising the terms of the advice that was being given.

A first observation is that there is nothing intrinsically wrong or unusual about a client and their lawyers tweaking the wording of draft advice to come to a mutually acceptable form of words in the final, formal advice. Legal documents are nuanced things and both lawyers and their clients will perceive different nuances. Ultimately, lawyers will not agree to provide advice in terms which they do not believe to be defensible so the final version of the advice is reliable even if not the lawyers’ preferred approach.

Louise Mensch’s interpretation of the documents was that NI wanted Harbottle & Lewis to say that there was “no evidence” linking others to Goodman’s acts and that Harbottle & Lewis rejected this wording in terms and insisted on saying that there was “no reasonable evidence”. She said that this was important because “no reasonable evidence” implied that the lawyers had found “some” evidence and that what she interpreted as NI’s attempt to get the lawyers to say “no evidence” was itself evidence of NI trying to cover up the existence of “some” evidence. This does not make a huge amount of sense to me as evidence which was not sufficient to be “reasonable” was unlikely to have been good support for Goodman’s allegations. Be that as it may, the bigger issue I have with her approach is that it does not seem to be supported by Harbottle & Lewis’ account of the drafting process.

It is true that the initial draft of the advice stated:

 “we did not find any evidence which proved that [REDACTED] knew that Clive Goodman, Glen Mulcaire or any other journalists at the News of the World were engaged in illegal activities prior to their arrest.” (para 5(n))

However, this draft was the draft proposed by Harbottle & Lewis, not wording suggested by NI. In fact, NI’s initial instructions to Harbottle & Lewis stated that the internal review by NI’s heads of legal and HR “found nothing that amounted to reasonable evidence [of the Goodman allegations]” (para 5(h)(iii) and instructions email from NI at Appendix B page B1). NI did suggest changing “any evidence” in the Harbottle & Lewis first draft to “anything which appeared to us [ie Harbottle & Lewis] to prove” (para 5(o)) but this was not accepted and the final wording ended up as:

“did not find anything in those e-mails which appeared to us to be reasonable evidence that Clive Goodman’s illegal actions were known about and supported by both or either of Andy Coulson, the editor, and Neil Wallis, the deputy editor, and/or that Ian Edmondson, the news editor, and others were carrying out similar illegal procedures”

There is nothing in Harbottle & Lewis’ submission which suggests that there was a particular pressure by NI to say there was “no evidence” or that there was a fight by Harbottle & Lewis to water this down to “no reasonable evidence”. In fact, the record from Harbottle & Lewis suggests that this was not really debated – “no reasonable evidence” was NI’s position when seeking the advice, the first draft of that advice strengthened this to “no evidence” but the final agreed version went back to NI’s original formulation. NI’s suggestion of a change from “no evidence” to “anything which appeared to [Harbottle & Lewis]” can, if anything be seen as watering down the initial Harbottle & Lewis draft.

None of this is to say that there was absolutely no evidence anywhere of wider knowledge by NI or NotW management of illegal hacking. There may well have been. However, it is semantic pseudo-legal quibbling to focus on the changes in the draft advice to provide a eureka moment to say that, in the particular context of the seeking of limited advice from Harbottle & Lewis, there is a substantial admission of the truth of Goodman’s allegations.

It’s News Glastonbury!

Yes, it’s the big day. Rupert and James Murdoch, and Rebekah Brooks all face questioning by MPs in the Select Committee we’ve all been waiting for. Leave aside the fact that almost none of us could confidently point to any other Select Committee hearing or what happened in it, apart from, possibly that of Andy Hayman a couple of weeks ago. What, you don’t know who he is?

As Charlie Brooker neatly coined in a tweet a little earlier on – today is News Glastonbury. A grotesque festival for news and media people, politicians and pub bores.

It will be just like Glastonbury. Uncomfortable – there are already reports of queues forming inside the House of Commons. Attendees and spectators having naive hope of life changing excitement – oh, yes. Performances from the headline acts likely to be disappointing – you can bet on it, we aren’t going to see Rebekah Brooks rending her hair or Rupert Murdoch getting out a samurai sword and ritually sacrificing his son for having brought dishonour upon him before disembowelling himself on live TV.

Are we going to hear about how momentous it all was endlessly for the coming weeks and months? Nothing is more certain.

UPDATE

What could be more Glastonbury than a crusty with a shaving foam custard pie? Other than a crusty with a shaving foam custard pie who is wearing a jester hat.

I’ve been working so haven’t been able to watch the proceedings live, but, apart from some good forensic questioning by Tom Watson MP, it looks like the Select Committee might have been better off just letting the Murdochs read their opening statement (oh, looks like they did at the end).

http://bit.ly/pqW2en

News Corp’s share price rising steadily throughout the session gives an interesting alternative focus group response to how the Murdochs have performed.

Unpalatable Truths about Us

Hacking voicemails and paying police officers to get stories for the newspapers. Plagiarising other writers’ interviews to polish your own articles. The sad and unpalatable truth is that most people simply don’t care that much about any of this.

Of course they ought to care, just as I ought to do more exercise and eat more vegetables. It doesn’t change the fact that they don’t.

The reality is that even though there have been some momentous changes like News Corp dropping its bid for BSkyB, the closure of the News of the World, the resignation of Rebekah Brooks, the bipartisan political support for criminal and civil investigation and inquiry into the methods of the media, the suspension of Johann Hari and investigation by the Orwell Prize committee and so on, most of these will have been of minimal note to the vast majority of the population. Even on twitter, a self-selecting minority of the more engaged part of the online population the retirement of Pam St Clements from her role as Pat Butcher in East Enders had a higher profile than hackgate at its height.

In part this might be down to a continuation of the “well they would do wouldn’t they” approach to the wider world. When the bid for BSkyB first made the news I remember being mildly surprised that News Corp didn’t already own a majority stake in BSkyB – it had been portrayed by most of the rest of the media as being controlled by Rupert Murdoch for years. From the slight experience I’ve had in being interviewed for comments by the press it wasn’t that big a surprise to hear that Johann Hari hadn’t in fact elicited nice, fully formed quotes from his interviewees (a small confession here, as one of the editors of my Sixth Form College magazine I published a largely fictional interview with a fellow student who worked on the theatre lighting and effects – someone else had gone to interview him but hadn’t really managed to get much out of him so I just made it up, ironically the same guy has now become something of a big name in lighting and effects so I missed out there). It was more of a surprise to find so much evidence of actually cribbing large chunks from other writers and interviewers just because it seems pretty unnecessary.

That tabloid journalists do pretty much anything to get a story and are as amoral in their methods as they are moralistic in their published tone was probably the biggest non-story of them all. Even though, of course, things like hacking into Milly Dowler’s voicemail and that of victims of 7/7 or 9/11 managed to lower a bar that most would have thought to be already unlimboable. That said, Will Self has (as ever) an interesting take on how ordinary people are now considered fair game for being mistreated in the same way as celebrities: http://bit.ly/nmhIrY

Bent coppers have been a staple of British life for years. They can be banal, as the ones involved in the allegations around the investigation of hacking claims. Or they can be strangely sympathetic, like Gene Hunt in Life on Mars (in my opinion rather less interesting when rather less corrupt in Ashes to Ashes). But they’re a tiny minority of the actual Police forces of the country, most of whom do unpleasant work at antisocial hours in a professional and decent manner. The chance that slipping a couple of hundred quid to the officer who stopped you for a breathalyzer test might work rather than get you arrested for attempting to bribe the officer is so small that you don’t hear of anyone even trying it.

Politicians doing anything they can to maintain their power and prestige or to feather their own nests? After the MPs’ expenses scandal and everything that was already known about how close MPs and party leaders have been to media moguls, it just isn’t news. Sarah Brown organising Rebekah Brooks’ 40th birthday party is not more outrageous now than it was a week ago, just as her husband giving his first Sun interview to the man who had apparently so upset him and his wife over breaking the story of his son’s cystic fibrosis wasn’t. They’re not news – indeed the only new thing is how weird it is that they think they deserve sympathy now for something they were way more forgiving of than most people would have been, or that even a jaded populace would think it right that a serving Prime Minister didn’t dare to take on the might of the press.

So, hard to swallow though it may be, these developments are a big deal that most people will just shrug and say, “Big Deal!” to. Ironically, the people who do care about this stuff are most likely to be amongst the perpetrators or to know or care about them. The public might shrug a bit but the politicians, journalists and other establishment figures want to feel good about themselves and what they do. Enough will feel shame because of the judgement of their peers and their unavoidable blindness to what ordinary people think – unavoidable because they don’t want to sound condescending or cynical (cardinal sins in public life except for those with the flair to carry it off, like, say, Brian Sewell). So, they’ll clean up their act, a bit, make a lot of noise over it and ultimately things will quieten down with a feeling that things have been sorted out, until the next time.