Rupert Murdoch has been officially informed by Scotland Yard that detectives want to interview him as a suspect as part of their inquiry into allegations of crime at his British newspapers.
It is understood that detectives first contacted Murdoch last year to arrange to question him but agreed to a request from his lawyers to wait until the phone-hacking trial was finished.
The interview is expected to take place in the near future in the UK and will be conducted ‘under caution’, the legal warning given to suspects. His son James, who was the executive chairman of News International in the UK, may also be questioned.
News of the police move comes after an Old Bailey jury found Murdoch’s former News of the World editor Andy Coulson guilty of conspiring to hack phones, but acquitted his former UK chief executive Rebekah Brooks on all charges.
The verdict on Coulson also means that Murdoch’s UK company is now threatened with a possible corporate charge, while the media owner also faces the prospect of a dozen more criminal trials involving his journalists as well as hundreds more legal actions in the high court from the alleged victims of phone hacking by the News of the World.
And the verdict revives troubling questions for the prime minister about his links with Murdoch and his hiring of Andy Coulson. Questions are likely to focus on why Cameron employed Coulson without making effective checks and whether Cameron gave misleading evidence on oath about this at the Leveson inquiry.
The eight-month trial heard copious evidence of the scale of crime at the News of the World. This also included handwritten notes kept by Glenn Mulcaire, which suggested that during the five years he worked under contract for the News of the World, he had targeted some 5,500 people. Jurors were also shown internal emails discussing cash payments for police working in the royal palaces.
The Guardian understands that a senior Murdoch journalist and two of those who pleaded guilty before the trial – Mulcaire and Neville Thurlbeck – had discussions with police about giving evidence for the prosecution but that in all three cases the negotiations failed.
Murdoch’s former UK chairman, Les Hinton, was also interviewed under caution for three hours in September 2012 as detectives pursued evidence into what happened at the highest reaches of Murdoch’s UK company.
The verdict on Coulson increases the possibility that Murdoch’s UK company, News UK (formerly News International) could be charged as a corporation, which in turn could potentially lead to the prosecution of members of the UK company’s former board of directors, potentially including Rupert and James Murdoch.
Such a prosecution can occur only if the “controlling minds” of the company are found to be guilty of a crime. Following Tuesday’s verdicts, the Met police Operation Weeting is expected to submit a new file of evidence to the Crown Prosecution Service.
If the former UK company were convicted of conspiring to intercept communications, the members of its board of directors – including Rupert and James Murdoch – could then be prosecuted personally under section 79 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa). This makes directors liable for prosecution if their company breaches Ripa as a result of their consent, connivance or neglect.
Murdoch already faces a volley of threats in the English criminal and civil courts. Eleven more trials are due to take place at the Old Bailey involving a total of 20 current or former journalists from the Sun and the News of the World, who are accused variously of making illegal payments to public officials, conspiring to intercept voicemail and accessing data on stolen mobile phones. The journalists have denied the charges.
In Scotland, Coulson and two other News of the World journalists face trials variously on charges of perjury, phone hacking and breach of data protection laws. They too, have denied the charges.
Eleven other current or former Murdoch employees are waiting to discover whether they will be prosecuted for phone hacking, email hacking or perversion of the course of justice. Police have arrested or interviewed under a caution a total of 210 people, including 101 journalists from six national newspapers.
In the high court, Murdoch is mired in civil litigation. His UK company has already settled and paid damages to some 718 victims of phone hacking by Mulcaire – an average of nearly three for every week he was contracted to the News of the World. Now News UK faces a new round of litigation from victims of Dan Evans, a showbusiness writer who also specialised in hacking phones for the News of the World. Evans has been co-operating with police and, according to one source, detectives recently have been approaching up to 90 people a week to warn them that they were targeted by Evans with a possible final total of some 1,600 victims.
(UPDATE: Murdoch’s lawyers complained bitterly to Scotland Yard that The Guardian had found out about the plan to question him as a suspect. Detectives from the Anti Corruption Command then contacted The Guardian to make inquiries about the origin of the story. The paper’s legal department said they were unable to help them. The Yard were so intimidated by this aggressive complaint from Murdoch’s lawyers that they agreed to drop their plan to question him….)