The News of the World asked a private investigator to ‘have a look at’phone-hacking lawyers Mark Lewis and Charlotte Harris because it suspected they were in a romantic relationship and that Lewis was leaking stories to The Guardian, MP have been told.
Tom Crone, the former legal chief at NoW publisher News Group Newspapers (NGN), has denied commissioning private investigators to carry out surveillance on the pair.
In a letter sent to the culture committee, however, he did admit raising the matter with the head of the NoW’s newsdesk ‘with a view to seeing whether it was practicable or possible’for one of his journalists to ascertain the ‘nature of the relationship’between Lewis and Harris.
Crone said that after The Guardian published details of the NoW’s phone-hacking settlement with Professional Football Association chief executive Gordon Taylor in July 2009, he concluded that Lewis was the ‘obvious’source for the leak.
‘There are a number of reasons for this,’said Crone. ‘Access to the documents and information was almost non-existent at the News Group end and the disclosure was very damaging to the company.
‘It was also entirely contrary to the interests of Mr Taylor himself – and we understand that he was furious over the leak.”
Crone and Julian Pike, one of NGN’s external lawyers from the law firm Farrer & Co, learned around this time that Lewis had fallen out with partners at his then law firm George Davies and Co in Manchester.
They were also told Lewis was ‘experiencing problems in his domestic life”.
‘Because of the wide range of documents and information in The Guardian’s hands it seemed to us that Mr Lewis was the only possible source,’said Crone.
They discussed making a complaint of professional misconduct against Lewis but decided against it ‘in the absence of direct admissible evidence”.
In the months that followed new phone-hacking cases were brought against NGN with Lewis acting for some of the clients and Harris for others.
Pike referred Crone to ‘various instances where it looked like information disclosed in one of his cases (including the Taylor case) was being deployed by Ms Harris on one of her cases and vice versa”.
Pike and Crone felt this information-sharing was in breach of conduct rules and rules of court.
Crone told the committee: ‘We had also heard from two separate sources that Mr Lewis and Ms Harris had had or were having a romantic relationship.
‘It seemed that any sort of evidence that they had such a relationship or evidence of transient or longer term co-habitation could relevant circumstantially to a complaint of professional misconduct.”
It was then that Crone raised the matter with the NoW newsdesk.
He was told they could hire private investigator Derek Webb to ‘have a look at Mr Lewis and Ms Harris in this context’and Pike agreed.
He told the committee that there was ‘never any suggestion’Webb would look at their families and also claimed it was his ‘understanding’that Webb had regularly worked for the NoW as an ‘accredited freelance journalist and not as a ‘private investigator'”.
Crone: ‘I did not commission private detectives’
Around three weeks later a newsdesk executive showed him pictures that had apparently come from Webb, but there were no pictures of Lewis and Harris.
Instead, there were a number of pictures of a woman shopping at a garden centre.
‘Since the woman was clearly not Ms Harris I pointed out to the newsdesk executive that there seemed to be [sic] have been a case of mistaken identity,’said Crone.
Shortly afterward the newsdesk executive asked whether he wanted Webb to go back for another try and Crone said he he told him ‘not to bother doing so”.
Crone said there was a ‘very clear difference’between asking the newsdesk for help in gathering facts and ‘commissioning private detectives”.
In November Lewis denied he was the source of the Guardian’s 2009 phone-hacking exposÃ©.
He said there were six possible sources: Glenn Mulcaire’s solicitors, Pike’s law firm Farrer & Co, News Corp, Gordon Taylor, his lawyers at his former firm George Davies, and the Metropolitan Police.