Phone Hacking

What did Rupert know, when?

In new court documents, Murdoch is accused of giving false answers to parliament and to the Leveson inquiry. Did he know more about phone-hacking than he let on?

May 03, 2024
Image: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo
Image: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

When the big trial into phone-hacking by one of Britain’s most powerful media empires ended in June 2014, the Guardian disclosed a potentially explosive development. Scotland Yard had given formal notice to Rupert Murdoch that detectives wanted to interview him under caution—not as a witness, but as a suspect in their inquiry into crime at his British newspapers. It didn’t happen.

Murdoch’s lawyers sent a lacerating complaint to the police, accusing unnamed officers of leaking this information to the Guardian. In a move for which it is hard to find a precedent, the Yard chose not to interview their suspect. Instead, their anti-corruption command began an inquiry to try to find the Guardian’s source. (They failed.)

As the Murdoch company prepares to defend a major new case—brought by Prince Harry and scheduled for January 2025—fresh evidence casts some light on the questions that Murdoch might have faced if the biggest police force in the country had not declined to interrogate him. 

In evidence to parliamentary select committees and the Leveson inquiry into press standards, Rupert Murdoch’s answer to any question that might have implicated him in crime essentially has been a chronology of ignorance: he simply never knew the truth about his London operation until the scandal blew up in 2011. 

The Leveson inquiry asked Murdoch when he ceased to believe his company’s position that the hacking was all the work of one reporter. In a sworn statement, he replied: “I became aware that the position was wrong sometime in late December 2010 or January 2011.” Speaking to parliament’s media select committee, he placed responsibility squarely with “the people that I trusted to run it, and then maybe the people they trusted.”

Lawyers for those who are suing the Murdoch company have argued in court that he was much more involved than that. In court pleadings they assert “that Mr Murdoch was fully aware of the extent of the wrongdoing and that he participated in the strategy… of destroying and concealing evidence and that he was fully aware his evidence to the Inquiries, Committees and Reviews [investigating phone-hacking] were false.”

First, the claimants allege that he must have known about at least some of the wrongdoing for much longer than he has admitted, and specifically that he must have known the scale of the News of the World’s crime “extended well beyond the ‘One Rogue Reporter’ lie.”

They argue that, since he was very close to his two UK chief executives—first Les Hinton and then Rebekah Brooks—they, as well as his son James, who ran the UK operation for five years, must have discussed with him the moments of crisis as the hacking scandal developed. 

This would have included: the cover-up after the 2006 arrest of the News of the World’s royal correspondent, Clive Goodman; the 2007 payments, totalling £325,000, to buy Goodman’s silence and that of Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator who hacked with him; the 2009 payout of £1m of company money to stop a case that threatened to reveal the truth; the high-profile cover-up that followed the 2009 Guardian story disclosing the true scale of the paper’s crime; his papers’ public attack on parliament’s media select committee when it pointed to the truth; and the £1m deal, also in 2010, to stop celebrity PR agent Max Clifford’s case exposing the company’s actions. 

They also cite the written agenda for a “summer retreat” of Murdoch’s executives at his residence in Carmel, California in around June 2010, which includes an item called “Mulcaire/NY Times”. This implies, the documents suggest, that his executives discussed with him a story that the New York Times had sent to the company in advance of publishing—one that contained detailed allegations of routine criminality and painted a damning picture. Murdoch’s UK company went on to deny the truth of the New York Times investigation. Murdoch told Leveson: “In the fall of 2010 I recall learning of a New York Times article on the matter, perhaps from my son James. I had understood that it was a rehash of allegations that had been discredited by the police. I do not recall reading the article.”

Second, the claimants allege that, from early 2010, Murdoch must have been involved in discussions that led to the destruction of potentially important evidence. He was a director on the board of the biggest of the UK companies, News International. The agendas for the company’s board meetings, including the one at his residence in Carmel, show that “email deletion” was discussed on four occasions between January and July of 2010. This was after the UK company in November 2009 had adopted a formal policy of deleting “emails that could be unhelpful in the context of future litigation”, as victims of the hacking began suing and asking for disclosure of evidence.

Third, the claimants have accused Murdoch in open court of personally approving the destruction of one particular batch of millions of emails, just as the Metropolitan Police were launching a new investigation into evidence of crime in his company. 

The key date in this allegation is Monday 24th January 2011. The public record shows that Murdoch flew into London on that day, cancelling his normal annual plan to go to the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Over the week leading up to 24th January, Murdoch’s UK company had already deleted from the archive the history of emails to and from all senior executives and 105 criminally suspect employees. Three months earlier, it had wiped everything from the archive up to the beginning of 2005. On 21st January, it paused for three days, apparently waiting for Murdoch. On the morning of 24th January, hours before he arrived, Brooks sent an email to Murdoch’s then son-in-law, Matthew Freud. She wrote: “Will and Simon will present a plan to the boss this week on our strategy, once KRM [Rupert Murdoch] has the full facts from Day One, ie 2005, from me.”

The claimants’ barrister, David Sherborne, told the High Court: “That refers to [senior News International executives] Will Lewis and Simon Greenberg coming up with the strategy to destroy the emails... and that demonstrates that [they] were certainly seeking approval from Rupert Murdoch.” 

There is some possible confirmation of the underlying idea that Murdoch on that day was given “the full facts from Day One by me” in the police statement of Colin Myler, the last News of the World editor, who says Brooks told him that she had told “the Boss everything” in early January 2011. 

Furthermore, it was that evening, for the first time, that an internal email was sent recording the unfounded allegation that a Labour sympathiser inside the company was stealing Brooks’s data and trying to sell it to politicians who were agitating about phone hacking, Tom Watson and Gordon Brown. Lewis later offered this claim to police as a justification for deleting the millions of email messages just as Operation Weeting—Scotland Yard’s new investigation into phone hacking—was set to begin. No evidence has ever emerged to support the allegation. The claimants have not specifically alleged that Murdoch authorised its use as a disguise for the destruction of evidence. 

On the following day, 25th January, the company started deleting from the archive all emails sent or received in 2005 and 2006. The day after that, the police launched Operation Weeting, by which time some 11m more emails had been destroyed.

The claimants say that by insisting on his ignorance, Murdoch knowingly gave false answers to questions from two parliamentary select committees, and under oath in dealing with questions at the Leveson inquiry. As to the police, the fact is that he didn’t answer any questions at all.


News Group Newspapers—a Murdoch company—was given the opportunity to respond in detail to Nick Davies’s reporting ahead of publication; it offered a short general statement published elsewhere by Prospect. Following the release of most of Davies’s articles, the company responded in a further statement:

“The allegations in this series of articles are in large part contained in draft amendments to the Claimants’ case in their ongoing litigation against News Group Newspapers. The Claimants have applied to introduce these amendments into their pleaded case, but that application has not yet been decided by the Court.

As a result, NGN has not yet pleaded its response to those allegations. If the Claimants are granted permission to make these amendments, NGN will set out its response to them in its Defence to be served at a later date.

This series of articles therefore is entirely one sided and misleading and should be viewed with considerable caution.”