Police are investigating evidence that a News International executive may have deleted millions of emails from an internal archive in an apparent attempt to obstruct Scotland Yard’s inquiry into the phone-hacking scandal.
The archive is believed to have reached back to January 2005, revealing daily contact between ‘News of the World’ editors, reporters and outsiders, including private investigators.
The messages are potentially highly valuable both for the police and for the numerous public figures who are suing News International (NI).
According to legal sources close to the police inquiry, a senior executive is believed to have deleted “massive quantities” of the archive on two separate occasions, leaving only a fraction to be disclosed.
One of the alleged deletions is said to have been made at the end of January, just as Scotland Yard was launching Operation Weeting, its new inquiry into the affair. The allegation directly contradicts NI claims that it is co-operating fully with police in order to expose its history of illegal newsgathering.
The alleged deletion of emails will be of particular interest to the media regulator Ofcom, which said it had asked to be “kept abreast” of developments in the Met’s hacking investigation, so it can assess whether News Corp would pass the “fit and proper” test that all owners of UK television channels have to meet.
That came amid the first signs that Rebekah Brooks’s grip on NI was weakening on a dramatic day when prime ministter David Cameron all but called for her resignation.
The scandal brought a number of arrests on Friday, with the prime minister’s former PR chief Andy Coulson held under suspicion of involvement in phone hacking.
Clive Goodman, the NoW’s former royal reporter, was also arrested in relation to the alleged payment of bribes to police, and subsequently bailed.
And on Friday night an unnamed 63-year-old man was also arrested in connection with alleged corruption.
The Guardian understands that the suspected deletion of emails is one of a number of actions that have infuriated detectives investigating hacking. In addition to deleting emails, NI executives have also:
Leaked information in spite of an undertaking to police that they would keep it confidential.
Risked prosecution for perverting the course of justice by trying to hide the contents of a senior reporter’s desk after he was arrested earlier this year.
NI originally claimed the archive of emails did not exist.
Last December, its Scottish editor, Bob Bird, told the trial of Tommy Sheridan in Glasgow that the emails had been lost en route to Mumbai. Also in December, the company’s solicitor, Julian Pike from Farrer and Co, gave a statement to the high court saying it was unable to retrieve emails more than six months old.
The first hint that this was not true came in late January when NI handed Scotland Yard evidence that led to the immediate sacking of its news editor, Ian Edmondson, and to the launch of Operation Weeting. It was reported that this evidence consisted of three old emails.
Three months later, on March 23, Pike formally apologised to the high court and acknowledged News International could locate emails as far back as 2005 and that no emails had been lost en route to Mumbai or anywhere else in India. In a signed statement seen by the Guardian, Pike said he had been misinformed by the NoW’s in-house lawyer, Tom Crone, who had told him that he, too, had been misled. He offered no explanation for the misleading evidence given by Bird.