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At last the smoking gun that has been missing from the hacking affair

17 Aug 2011  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Raymond Snoddy

Raymond Snoddy: Perhaps the gung-ho magistrates currently jailing looters for stealing chewing gum should be told to moderate their anger. Quite a number of cells will have to be reserved to accommodate the miscreants of News International...

It's always the small unnecessary betrayals that cause the most trouble.

Assume for a moment that the contents of the former News of the World royal correspondent Clive Goodman's letter published yesterday are true. At the very least the claims seem logically consistent and plausible, and anyway no-one has denied them - at least for now.

So Goodman plays the game. He takes the "single rogue reporter" role on the chin and gets a four-month jail sentence.

According to the letter he agrees not to reveal how many people were involved or how many people knew. There was financial compensation of course but above all else Goodman wanted his job back afterwards, something he claims was promised repeatedly by Tom Crone, the former News of the World legal manager, and the paper's former editor Andy Coulson.

The money was no problem. No less than £243,000 was forthcoming for Goodman, even though former News International chief executive Les Hinton - there are a lot of "formers" in this tangled tale - wrote that: "In all the circumstance we would of course be entitled to make no payment whatsoever."

Clive must have been happy with such a decent payment. Not bad for actually serving around two months in the can, particularly when, after a respectable interval, you get a job back - a form of, at least internal, NI rehabilitation.

And then someone - possibly Hinton - decided that such a course would be a little inconvenient, sending the wrong message to actually allow the jail bird back in through the front door.

Surely better to cut Goodman adrift and draw a line under the whole single rogue reporter affair and move on. Just one little dismissal letter sent to cheer the royal reporter up as he started his sentence. So easy to write... "This action, I know you understand, is the consequence of your plea of guilty and subsequent imprisonment".

A small betrayal, if the Goodman letter appealing against his dismissal, is correct.

Luckily the matter can rapidly be put to the test when Tom Crone, and probably Andy Coulson, get to talk to the House of Commons Select Committee next month.

If the Goodman version of events is correct then the payment was hush money. And if there was a promise to give him his job back as part of the deal then a lot of very senior people are in deep water.

Naturally News International continued its cack-handed approach to the affair by removing a key paragraph from the published Goodman letter yesterday.

"Tom Crone and the editor promised on many occasions that I could come back to a job at the newspaper if I did not implicate the paper or any of its staff in my mitigation plea. I did not, and I expect the paper to honour its promise to me."

To cut such a paragraph was the equivalent of erecting a neon sign to draw attention to a key allegation.

To its credit The Times highlighted the discrepancy in the two versions of the letter and reported that NI declined to comment on why it had been done. The Times coverage by newly appointed media editor Ben Webster was comprehensive and pulled no punches - a small plus for the integrity of the beleaguered organisation.

Small unnecessary betrayals followed by clumsy attempts at a cover-up take all those responsible towards an inevitable destination.

The main substance of the letter, as a number of papers have suggested, is at last "the smoking gun" that has so far been missing from the hacking affair.

The denials from the top editorial and management brass that they knew nothing, even as they signed or authorised large cheques, have seemed implausible from the outset. Now they appear simply ludicrous.

The names have of course been "redacted", or received the black felt-tipped pen treatment on the advice of the police, but we all know who they are. The decision to dismiss (Goodman) was inconsistent because XXXXX and other members of staff were carrying out the same illegal procedures.

Then comes the most damaging allegation of all - that the illegal hacking practice was openly discussed in news meetings until explicit reference was banned by XXXX.

Once the black ink has been removed, presumably in the Select Committee, we will find out whether we are now much closer to hearing the "profound apology" promised by prime minister David Cameron if it turned out that he was lied to by Andy Coulson.

The letter that suddenly popped up mysteriously in the middle of the August holidays is further proof, if any is needed, that the hacking scandal is starting to unravel at increasing speed and moving closer and closer to the centre of power in News Corporation.

Anyone who has been involved at any stage must be feeling like a looter whose face was caught on CCTV and picture published in the newspapers. It is only a matter of time before the police get around to calling if they haven't already.

The Select Committee has wisely left the biggest fish of all - James Murdoch - for now, to allow some more of the evidence to simmer.

Instead they have called a number of senior people who will all have a grievance about how they have been badly treated or taken for scapegoats: Crone - the former legal manager, Colin Myler - the former NotW editor, Daniel Cloke - the former NI human resources director and Jon Chapman - former NI legal affairs director.

Together they have a number of important characteristics in common. Most of them are names barely known outside 'Fortress Wapping'. All of them are senior enough to have a good idea what really went on behind closed doors and as "former" people none of them have anything to lose.

Not even NI would be brazen enough to try to recover compensation payments from those telling the truth to a Parliamentary Committee.

Perhaps the gung-ho magistrates currently jailing looters for stealing packets of chewing gum should be told to moderate their anger. Quite a number of cells will have to be reserved to accommodate the miscreants of News International - and that may not be the only newspaper group visiting former staff in prison.

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