Lawyers have asked a court to grant access to email accounts used by James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks in a bid to prove there was an attempt to cover up phone hacking at the News of the World and the Sun.
A judge is expected to rule on Friday whether 17 company email accounts used by executives and journalists at News International, the former owner of the News of the World, can be searched for any discussion about the destruction or concealment of emails. It is claimed the company deleted about 20m emails in 2010 and 2011, continuing after police launched a criminal investigation.
The latest development in a civil action against the owners of the Sun and News of the World comes at a sensitive time for Murdoch, who is trying to oversee a bid by the company he runs, 21st Century Fox, to take full control of UK broadcaster Sky. A previous bid by Fox was abandoned amid public outcry over phone hacking.
News International, which is now called News UK, has always claimed that any deletion of emails was part of normal housekeeping. However, lawyers acting for almost 20 alleged phone-hacking victims – including the former footballer Jonathan Woodgate and entertainer Les Dennis – claim it was designed to eliminate incriminating evidence.
Murdoch was chairman of both News International and Sky and Brooks was News International’s chief executive when the phone-hacking scandal broke,. After resigning in 2011, she returned in 2015 as chief executive of News UK.
Other executives on the lawyers’ list include Andy Coulson, who was convicted of conspiracy to hack phones in 2014, and Les Hinton, who was the chairman of News International for much of the period when phone hacking took place.
Barrister David Sherborne, acting for the alleged victims, told the court that the deletions were “ordered by those at the top of the tree as a way of getting rid of incriminating emails” before being hit with legal claims.
News UK has maintained that email deletion in 2010 and 2011 was part of legitimate housekeeping. In 2015, the Crown Prosecution Service said it had found “no evidence to suggest” that the deletions were part of an attempt to pervert the course of justice.
Anthony Hudson QC, acting for News Group Newspapers, the subsidiary of News UK which was parent company to the News of the World and the Sun, said it was “not appropriate to be making such serious allegations in this context”, adding that the company’s position had always been that “emails were not deleted as part of any cover up”.
Brooks was acquitted of all charges related to phone hacking in 2014 – including perverting the course of justice – and there is no suggestion that Murdoch knew about hacking when it was taking place.
However, the regulator Ofcom published a scathing assessment in 2012 of Murdoch’s role at News Internationa, as part of a “fit and proper person” assessment of Sky where he had remained a non-executive director after stepping down as chair. Though it ruled that Sky passed the test, it said Murdoch’s behaviour at News International repeatedly fell short of the standards expected.
Ofcom said Sky should retain its licence, but campaigners against Fox’s bid to take full control of the company have argued that a new fit and proper person test should be launched.
The culture secretary, Karen Bradley, has said she is “minded” to refer Fox’s Sky bid to Ofcom on media plurality and editorial standards grounds, a different form of assessment to the fit and proper test, which can be initiated at any time by Ofcom.
The request to search the emails is part of a long-running legal battle over how much News UK should be forced to disclose before a trial, which is scheduled for October.
The hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice continues.