LONDON // James Murdoch's claim to a parliamentary committee that he had only recently heard allegations of widespread phone hacking by reporters at the News of the World was challenged by two of the newspaper's top executives yesterday.
Tom Crone, a former legal chief of the best-selling Sunday tabloid that Rupert Murdoch shut down in July because of the scandal, told MPs investigating the phone hacking hacking that he was "certain" that James Murdoch had knowledge of a 2008 email saying that the practice was much more widespread than the company was admitting.
Colin Myler, who was editor at the time, also told MPs on the House of Commons Culture and Media Committee that James Murdoch, the deputy chief operating officer at US-based News Corp and head of his father's media empire in Europe and Asia, knew of the email.
But in July, when he and his father testified to the same committee, Mr Murdoch stated he had not been aware of the email until recently.
The email was written by Clive Goodman, the newspaper's royal editor who had been jailed in 2007, along with a private detective, for hacking into the voicemails of Buckingham Palace staff. News International, the Murdoch parent company in the UK, maintained throughout that the hacking had been the work of a single "rogue reporter".
But in the email, Goodman - who eventually got a payoff of £240,000 (Dh1.4 million) - threatened to go public with the claim that hacking at the News of the World had been commonplace.
Goodman, who wanted his job back, wrote that "other members of staff were carrying out the same illegal procedures" and that "this practice was widely discussed in the daily editorial conference".
It subsequently emerged that there were potentially up to 4,000 victims of hacking by the newspaper.
The parliamentary committee is likely to decide in the coming week if it should recall James Murdoch to explain the discrepancy between his account and those of two of News International's most senior former executives.
Mr Crone told the committee yesterday that he had informed Mr Murdoch of the email at a meeting in April 2008, also attended by Mr Myler, to discuss an out-of-court settlement about the hacking of private information in a case brought by Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association.
Mr Crone said that it was at that meeting that Mr Murdoch approved a £425,000 settlement to Mr Taylor - a far higher figure than any payout made after the scandal began to attract widespread publicity.
"It [the email] was clear evidence that phone-hacking was taking place beyond Clive Goodman," Mr Crone told the committee.
"It was the reason we had to settle the [Gordon Taylor] case and in order to settle the case, we had to explain the case to Mr Murdoch and get his authority to settle, so clearly it was discussed."
Mr Crone said that the priority at the time had been to settle the Taylor case as quickly as possible in a bid to avoid further legal action by four other people whose phones had been hacked by Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator who had been jailed with Goodman the year before.
"The imperative or the priority at the time was to settle this case, get rid of it, contain the situation as far as four other litigants were concerned and get on with our business," he said.
"If we had to pay way over the odds to Mr Taylor, especially with a confidentiality clause which he asked for, then that is a good course of action."
Mr Myler confirmed Mr Crone's account, saying the pair of them had specifically gone to James Murdoch to tell him about the existence of the document and its implications for Mr Taylor's claim.
Pressed if he was sure that Mr Murdoch had understood the significance of the email, Mr Myler said: "There was no ambiguity about the significance of that document."
A separate Scotland Yard investigation is already under way into the allegations of phone hacking and claims that police officers received bribes from News of the World staff for information.
Andy Coulson, who resigned as editor after Goodman's jailing, was forced to quit as Prime Minister David Cameron's communications director in January as the scandal grew. He and a dozen other former News of the World staff have been arrested, though none has been charged.