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James Murdoch contradicted by ex-legal manager over his testimony; another journalist is fired
LONDON (AP) ' James Murdoch's former legal adviser and a former editor contested the testimony he gave to British lawmakers, saying Thursday he was told years ago about an email that suggested the rot at his Sunday tabloid was far more widespread than previously claimed.
Their statement could deal a blow to the credibility of Rupert Murdoch's son as the family struggles to limit the damage from a phone-hacking scandal that has already cost the media empire one of its British tabloids, two top executives and a billion-dollar bid for control of a satellite broadcaster.
Meanwhile Scotland Yard, which is still reeling from allegations that it turned a blind eye to the scandal, was asked to investigate another explosive claim: That journalists bribed officers to locate people by tracking their cell phone signals.
The practice is known as "pinging" because of the way cell phone signals bounce off relay towers as they try to find reception. Jenny Jones, a member of the board that oversees the Metropolitan Police Authority, called for the inquiry into the alleged payoffs by journalists at Murdoch's now-defunct News of the World.
James Murdoch, in a grilling by lawmakers on Tuesday, batted away claims that he knew the full extent of the illegal espionage at the News of the World when he approved a massive payout in 2008 to soccer players' association chief Gordon Taylor, one of the phone hacking victims.
Murdoch's News International had long maintained that the eavesdropping was limited to a single rogue reporter, Clive Goodman, and the private investigator he was working with to break into voice mails of members of the royal household.
But an email uncovered during legal proceedings seemed to cast doubt on that claim. It contained a transcript of an illegally obtained conversation, drawn up by a junior reporter and marked "for Neville" ' an apparent reference to the News of the World's chief reporter, Neville Thurlbeck.
Because it seemed to implicate others in the hacking, the email had the potential to blow a hole through News International's fiercely held contention that one reporter alone had engaged in hacking. If Murdoch knew about the email ' and was aware of its implication ' it would lend weight to the suggestion that he'd approved the payoff in an effort to bury the scandal.
Murdoch told lawmakers he was not aware of the email at the time, but in a statement late Thursday, former News International legal manager Tom Crone and former News of the World editor Colin Myler contradicted him.
"We would like to point out that James Murdoch's recollection of what he was told when agreeing to settle the Gordon Taylor litigation was mistaken," they said. "In fact, we did inform him of the 'for Neville' email which had been produced to us by Gordon Taylor's lawyers."
News International quickly fired back a denial, saying James Murdoch stood by his statement to lawmakers.
Almost at the same time, it announced it had fired yet another journalist in connection with the scandal ' identified in the British media as a former News of the World editor who now works at its sister newspaper, The Sun.
The request for a pinging inquiry, meanwhile, stems from an allegation made by the late Sean Hoare, a former News of the World reporter who spoke to the New York Times about skullduggery at the tabloid.
Hoare ' who was fired in 2005 ' said officers were paid nearly $500 (300 pounds) per trace. The paper cited a second unnamed former News of the World journalist as corroborating Hoare's claim.
Hoare was found dead on Monday at his home near London; police say the death is not suspicious.
Pinging joins a host of alleged media misdeeds being put under the microscope as police, politicians, and the public weigh allegations that journalists at Rupert Murdoch's News of the World engaged in years of lawless behavior to get scoops. Murdoch's News Corp. is trying to keep the damage from spreading to its more lucrative U.S. holdings, including the Fox network, 20th Century Fox and the Wall Street Journal.
What began in 2005 as a slow-burning scandal over one reporter's efforts to spy on voice mails left on the phones of Britain's royal household has exploded into a crisis that has shaken Murdoch's media empire and led to resignations of two of Scotland Yard's most senior officers.
British politicians have felt the heat too, with the country's top two party leaders falling over each other to distance themselves from papers they once both courted assiduously.
Prime Minister David Cameron's former communications director ' Murdoch newspapers veteran Andy Coulson ' came under fresh scrutiny Thursday after it was reported that he did not have a top-level security clearance, which spared him from the most stringent type of vetting.
And there was further intrigue injected into the scandal after Britain's Cabinet Office released correspondence showing that a senior official believed he had had his phone broken into as recently as last year, when Coulson was already in government.
Although the issue had been covered off-and-on over the years, almost exclusively by the Guardian, allegations of illegal behavior at the News of the World have received feverish attention since a July 4 report alleged that someone at the tabloid hacked the phone of 13-year-old murder victim Milly Dowler in 2002 while police were still searching for her.
The temperature cooled a bit on Thursday, with Parliament closed for the first day of its summer recess, but the investigation appeared to be intensifying.
London's Metropolitan Police said Wednesday it was assigning 15 more officers to help the 45 already involved in the investigation.
Since the latest phone hacking allegations emerged, London's police chief and the head of its antiterrorist operations have resigned. So have Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International, which runs Murdoch's British newspaper division, and Les Hinton, the publisher of the Wall Street Journal who formerly headed News International. Murdoch has shut down the 168-year-old News of the World, leaving 200 employees looking for work, and abandoned his bid to win control of lucrative British Sky Broadcasting.
Shutting News of the World apparently will also cost Murdoch's surviving British newspapers their exclusive access to British athletes ahead of the 2012 London Olympics.
Team 2012, an initiative supporting British Olympians, had signed up News International as its official partner to help raise funds for athletes. But without the News of the World, Team 2012 said News International can no longer meet its contractual obligations, and it is looking for new media partners.
Robert Barr and Cassandra Vinograd contributed to this report.