The pressure rises on James Murdoch

The conclusion from today's evidence is clear: either Murdoch is lying, or Tom Crone and Colin Myler

James Murdoch, who cancelled a planned trip to Asia to watch today's media select committe hearing on phone hacking, will have had an uncomfortable morning. Colin Myler, the former (and final) editor of the News of the World, and Tom Crone, the paper's former head of legal affairs, have stuck to their story and insisted that Murdoch did know about the infamous "for Neville" email - the document that blew a hole in News International's "rogue reporter" defence.

Crone stumbled at one point and appeared unable to say whether Murdoch was aware that phone hacking extended beyond the paper's royal editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire [the logical conclusion of the email, which featured a hacking transcript, marked for Neville Thurlbeck, the News of the World's chief reporter]. But Myler came to his rescue and insisted that "everybody understood the significance of the "for Neville" email." In other words, not only did Murdoch know of the existence of the email, he also knew that it destroyed the paper's legal defence.

Yet when he appeared before the select committee in July, the News International chairman denied that he was even made aware of the email. Here's his exchange with Tom Watson:

Watson: "James - sorry, if I may call you James, to differentiate - when you signed off the Taylor payment, did you see or were you made aware of the full Neville email, the transcript of the hacked voicemail messages?"

James Murdoch: "No, I was not aware of that at the time."

When this answer was queried by the Guardian, Murdoch's office provided a written statement repeating his denial: "In June 2008 James Murdoch had given verbal approval to settle the case, following legal advice. He did this without knowledge of the 'for Neville' email."

At one point, Crone said of Murdoch: "I can't tell you whether on his part there was ambiguity." If we assume that Crone and Myler are telling the truth, Murdoch's only plausible defence is that the importance of the "for Neville" email was explained to him in the most opaque fashion. But Myler's declaration that "everybody understood" its significance appears to rule out this possibility.

The conclusion from today's evidence is clear: either Murdoch is lying, or Crone and Myler are. It is now imperative that the committee recalls Murdoch and asks him to resolve this contradiction.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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