LONDON—Tom Crone had insight into how the dirt was dug—and defended—at the News of the World, the now-closed tabloid at the center of the U.K. phone-hacking scandal.A stickling point for James in this scandal has been his signature on checks that, in effect, bought the silence of those who knew of NOTW's wrongdoing.
Now he may be on a collision course with James Murdoch, the deputy chief operating officer of News Corp.
Mr. Crone, who was the top lawyer at the tabloid, joined forces last week with its former editor, Colin Myler, to challenge the testimony Mr. Murdoch gave at a parliamentary committee hearing two days earlier.
The two men said that in 2008 they had informed Mr. Murdoch—who was then overseeing News Corp.'s European and Asian operations—of a key 2005 email that suggests that interceptions of voice mails at the paper went beyond a single reporter and a private investigator.
Mr. Murdoch, who is News Corp.'s deputy chief operating officer, said last week he first saw evidence of that in late 2010.
Mr. Crone served for more than 25 years as a lawyer for the News of the World and its sister paper the Sun, earning a reputation as a shrewd hand in defending the racy British tabloids.
As the paper's in-house lawyer, he met with the News of the World editor on close to a daily basis, regularly attended editorial meetings and would typically read controversial stories before they ran, a person familiar with the matter said.
"Tom would be at the center of a lot of matters, the equivalent of a cabinet secretary," said Graham Shear, a partner at law firm Berwin Leighton Paisner LLP, who often faced off against Mr. Crone in legal disputes.
News Corp. also owns The Wall Street Journal.
Mr. Crone, who left the company earlier this month when the News of the World was shut down, didn't respond to requests for comment.
The dispute over how early Mr. Murdoch knew about the email could boil down to what was said in the spring of 2008, when Mr. Murdoch met with Messrs. Crone and Myler to discuss settling a suit filed by Gordon Taylor, former head of a U.K. soccer union. According to a person within News Corp., the discussion occurred in a single meeting that lasted less than 30 minutes, where no minutes were taken, and the company has found no documents exchanged with Mr. Murdoch related to the meeting's discussion.Signing checks for such large amounts while denying knowledge of the details surrounding what they were for strains credulity but proof that James Murdoch had been informed of the scandal as long ago as 2008 would be much more difficult to explain away.
The 2005 email contains transcripts of more than 30 voice-mail messages related to Mr. Taylor. The email—sent from a junior News of the World reporter to a private investigator, mentioning a senior reporter in the text—suggests that two tabloid employees other than the one who had been convicted in 2006 for phone hacking knew about the tactic. Mr. Murdoch says he authorized a roughly £700,000 ($1.1 million) settlement without being aware of the email, which was the key piece of evidence driving the lawsuit.
The existence of Mr. Taylor's settlement, and the e-mail with his hacked voice mails, didn't become public until a July 2009 article in the Guardian. That marked a key moment in the long-running phone-hacking saga, because it suggested evidence that contradicted News Corp.'s long-held contention that phone hacking had been an isolated occurrence.