News Corp. Erased 20 Million Emails Amid Phone-Hacking Probe

  • ‘Incriminating’ evidence erased, victims’ lawyers tell judge
  • NGN employee testified there were IT problems at the time

News Corp.’s U.K. publishing unit deleted 20 million emails in 2010 and 2011 as investigations into illegal phone hacking by journalists gathered pace, according to evidence in a lawsuit that could cast a shadow on the takeover of Sky Plc.

News Group Newspapers Ltd. is being sued by a group that includes television stars and a former professional soccer player. At a pre-trial hearing Thursday in London, lawyers for the victims cited new evidence from a statement provided by one of the company’s IT managers.

The manager testified that millions of messages were erased because of problems with the IT system, the victims’ lawyer David Sherborne said.

“Our case is that it was deliberately ordered by those at the top of the tree as a way of getting rid of incriminating emails,” he said. “They were continuing their mass destruction of emails even after the police had started their investigation.”

The court case may become a hurdle for 21st Century Fox Inc. in its 11.7 billion pound ($14.2 billion) bid for Sky. U.K. lawmakers have asked the government to consider past wrongdoing in Murdoch family controlled companies when deciding whether to approve the merger. James Murdoch, who was executive chairman of the U.K. publishing unit from 2008 to 2012, now runs 21st Century Fox.

Karen Bradley, the U.K. minister ultimately responsible for clearing the bid, is expected to make a decision by next week on whether to refer Fox’s plan to Ofcom, the telecommunications regulator.

Past Probes

A trial in the phone-hacking lawsuit is scheduled for as soon as October. There are 24 claimants remaining in the London civil case.

The allegations, to a certain extent, aren’t new. The Crown Prosecution Service reviewed the issue as part a probe into whether News Corp. itself should be charged, but in 2015 prosecutors said there was no evidence to suggest that email deletion was undertaken in order to pervert the course of justice.

A Fox spokesperson said the company is confident that the Sky takeover will be approved based on an objective assessment of the facts. A spokesman for News UK, the company that now houses News Corp.’s British newspapers, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The phone-hacking scandal scuppered News Corp.’s previous attempt to buy Sky in 2011. The discovery that journalists at the News of the World newspaper listened to message on the phone of a murdered schoolgirl led to multiple criminal and judicial probes into the company and the eventual conviction of Andy Coulson, a former editor of the tabloid. The News of the World was closed by Rupert Murdoch in a bid to ease widespread outrage over the hacking.

Rebekah Brooks arrives at the News UK headquarters in London, on Sept. 7, 2015.
Rebekah Brooks arrives at the News UK headquarters in London, on Sept. 7, 2015.
Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Sherborne read out an email sent by News Group executive Rebekah Brooks in 2010 that proposed eliminating “emails that could be unhelpful in the context of future litigation.” The next day a word document about deletion was created with the title JRM, referring to James Murdoch, according to Sherborne.

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