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Lawyers air longterm phone-hacking suspicions

LONDON — Witnesses continued to chip away at News International’s claims that it didn’t know phone hacking was widespread at its News of the World tabloid, with a former legal advisor for the company testifying Tuesday that he knew years ago the company’s defense would not stand up.

Julian Pike, an independent legal adviser who provided advice to News International, told Britain’s media ethics inquiry that as far back as 2008 he did not believe the company’s longstanding claim that phone hacking at the tabloid was limited to one rogue reporter.

That supports an assertion Pike made in October that he’d known for years News International had been lying to the public about the extent of the scandal and complemented testimony from the company’s ex-counsel, Tom Crone.

Crone told the inquiry he had given advice on phone hacking on at least one occasion before the arrests in 2007 of News of the World reporter Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire — the only two people jailed for phone hacking.

Crone has accused James Murdoch — chairman of News International, the British arm of his father Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. — of lying to a parliamentary committee investigating phone hacking by saying he had never been told about an email marked “For Neville” indicating that hacking was widespread.

As Crone testified to the inquiry on Tuesday, the parliamentary committee published a letter from Murdoch clarifying his testimony. In the letter, Murdoch said he had only recently realized that he had received — and replied to — an email chain laying out the details of that message.

Murdoch’s backtrack came as a lawyer asked by News International to examine emails for evidence tabloid executives knew about illegal activities acknowledged that an earlier report he had produced stating that executives at the company were not aware of more widespread hacking would have been different in hindsight.

Lawrence Abramson told the media ethics inquiry Tuesday that he initially found nothing to suggest that knowledge of phone hacking was widespread, but since completing his review in 2007, he has seen a fresh batch of emails that would have changed his report.

Abramson worked for the law firm Harbottle & Lewis, which was asked by News International in 2007 to review more than 2,000 emails to see if there was evidence to support a former employee’s claim that executives at the company knew of extensive hacking.

He told Britain’s media ethics inquiry that he found emails that cast News International in an “unfavorable light” — highlighting, for example, the company’s attempt to influence the prosecution of Goodman, a royal reporter who was jailed for hacking into the voice mails of members of the royal household.

Goodman’s allegations that News International executives were aware of illegal activities at the newspaper prompted the company to hire Harbottle & Lewis to review the emails, and Abramson said he didn’t find anything to back up those allegations.

But Abramson said he initially did not have access to emails dating back to 2003 and has since reviewed a batch of emails from that time period. He said that had he seen those messages at the time, his recommendation to News International would have been different.

Prime Minister David Cameron set up the judge-led media inquiry after it emerged that the Murdoch-owned News of the World had for years illegally eavesdropped on the voice mail messages of celebrities, public figures and crime victims in its quest for exclusive stories.

Murdoch shut down the 168-year-old newspaper in July amid a wave of public revulsion over hacking the voice mails of a missing schoolgirl, Milly Dowler, who was later found murdered.