The background

In December 2007, Rupert Murdoch’s son James was appointed the chairman and chief executive of the European and Asian wings of the tycoon’s News Corporation media empire, taking ultimate responsibility for the News of the World (NotW).

Earlier that year, the tabloid’s former Royal editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire had been jailed for plotting to intercept the voicemail messages of aides to Princes William and Harry.

It was revealed at the time that Mulcaire had also hacked the phones of a number of other celebrities including Gordon Taylor of the Professional Footballers’ Association.

All that happened before Mr Murdoch took over, but he was left to clear up the mess.

It was the new chief executive who authorised a reputed £700,000 payout to settle a breach of privacy claim by Mr Taylor in June 2008. The out-of-court settlement was made on condition that Mr Taylor agree never to discuss the details of his case.

The full extent of the paper’s phone hacking operation – whose victims including murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler – wasn’t made public until this year, when News Corporation took the decision to close NotW.

The big question is: how much did James Murdoch know back in 2008? Did he try to buy Mr Taylor’s silence in a bid to stop the whole story coming out?

The analysis

Mr Murdoch insists he was not aware at the time that wrongdoing at NotW stretched far beyond the activities of Goodman and Mulcaire, despite conflicting evidence from former editor Colin Myler and its ex-legal manager Tom Crone.

Making his second appearance before the culture committee on Thursday, Mr Murdoch stuck to his guns, spelling out for the first time that Myler and Crone had misled the panel of MPs in their evidence.

Someone must be lying. What do both sides say?

The ‘For Neville’ email

One of the key pieces of evidence now being studied by detectives is an email sent to Mulcaire containing transcripts of hacked voicemail messages marked “For Neville”, in a supposed reference to reporter Neville Thurlbeck.

Had Mr Murdoch read the email, he would have been in no doubt that the scale of phone hacking went far beyond the activities of one rogue reporter, which was News Corporation’s line of defence for years.

Mr Crone told the committee: “I told him about the document, and the effect of that document clearly is that it goes beyond Clive Goodman.”

Now it has emerged that MP Tom Watson met Thurlbeck recently and the former journalist said he was approached by Tom Crone about the email shortly before the decision was made to pay off Gordon Taylor.

Thurlbeck said Crone had told him: “I’m going to have to show this to James Murdoch”.

The reporter said he pleaded with the lawyer not to reveal the smoking gun to the newspaper’s new boss, but Crone told him a week later that he had indeed told Mr Murdoch about it.

Thurlbeck added: “This is not some vague memory. I was absolutely on a knife edge.”

But Mr Murdoch denied the account was true, saying: “I really can’t say what Mr Crone and Mr Thurlbeck may have discussed…but my recollection is very clear. I remember what I was told at the time and I was not told at the time.”

He insists he was never shown the email or told of its significance by Mr Crone or Mr Myler. He said he knew of the email’s existence but the crucial fact the message was addressed to a second NotW reporter was kept from him.

The legal opinion

Shortly before the payout to Mr Taylor was agreed in 2008, the leading barrister Michael Silverleaf QC was approached to give a legal opinion on the likely outcome if NotW contested his privacy claim in court.

The opinion, made public for the first time last week, warned of “a culture of illegal information access” at the newspaper involving “at least three” journalists. Explosive stuff, but did Mr Murdoch read it?

He said he did not approach Mr Silverleaf for the opinion and was never shown the document by Mr Crone or Mr Myler. Nor did he ask to read it.

Mr Murdoch said he was only told about part of the text that referred to the size of damages that Mr Taylor might win. Nothing was said about the barrister’s references to widespread phone hacking, he insisted.

The May 27 ‘conversation’

Julian Pike of Farrer & Co, News International’s solicitors, said Colin Myler revealed a conversation with Mr Murdoch about the settlement on May 27, 2008.

Mr Murdoch and Mr Myler both say they can’t remember whether a conversation took place or what was discussed.

The ex-editor has said his former employers have denied him access to material at his old workplace that could help jog his memory.

Will News International now let Mr Myler see records he may have made at the time? “We can review that and I can come back to you,” Mr Murdoch told the committee.

His position remains that the only “substantive” meeting about the Taylor payout took place on June 10, 2008. The massive sum of damages and costs was agreed following a 15-30 minute meeting, according to Mr Murdoch.

Both Mr Myler and Mr Crone had already made offers of substantial sums of money to Mr Taylor, which they were not authorised to do under company guidelines, Mr Murdoch alleged. But he apparently didn’t launch any disciplinary proceedings against them.

He was happy to take Myler and Crone’s word for what was contained in Mr Silverleaf’s advice and didn’t read what the barrister had written, he reiterated.

As for his former colleagues’ evidence to the committee, he said: “I believe their testimony was misleading and I dispute it.”

The verdict

Neville Thurlbeck’s account to Tom Watson of his supposed conversation with Tom Crone supports the allegation that James Murdoch knew hacking was not limited to one reporter, but there’s still no absolute proof.

If Colin Myler is allowed to check his emails or diaries, there could be yet another twist to this saga.

It remains the case that the only thing we know for sure after several sharply conflicting accounts about the extent of James Murdoch’s involvement is that someone has been lying.