News Corp. (NWSA)’s U.K. newspaper unit gave secret internal e-mails to a judge who called them “startling” and ordered the company to search a former senior employee’s laptops for evidence of a phone-hacking cover up.

The publisher’s recent “limited admission” that senior managers tried to conceal the voice-mail interception scandal from police by destroying e-mail archives isn’t enough to avoid new searches that could reveal more damaging evidence before a trial, Judge Geoffrey Vos said yesterday in London. The order applies to three laptops used by the unidentified ex-employee.

“They are to be treated as deliberate destroyers of evidence,” Vos said of London-based News International at the hearing. “I have been shown a number of e-mails which are confidential. Suffice it to say they show a rather startling approach to the e-mail” practices at the company.

The order was made after News International told Vos it settled 36 lawsuits filed by victims of phone hacking by its News of the World tabloid, including actor Jude Law and Labour lawmaker Chris Bryant. New York-based News Corp. closed the paper in July to help contain anger after the extent of the scandal was revealed and News International’s chief executive officer at the time, Rebekah Brooks, was arrested a week later.

“You seem a little over-sensitive about these laptops,” Vos told News International’s lawyers at the hearing. They may contain details about why so many e-mails were deleted by the company as victims’ lawsuits piled up, he said.

Sienna Miller

Vos described in his judgment some of the secret e-mails, saying that three days after lawyers for actress Sienna Miller wrote a letter in September 2010 asking News International to retain evidence about voice-mail interceptions, “a previously conceived plan to delete e-mails was put in place by senior managers.”

Miller settled her claim last year for 100,000 pounds ($155,000). Her lawsuit is credited bringing evidence to light debunking News Corp.’s claim that phone hacking was limited to one “rogue reporter” arrested for the offense in 2006.

The secret e-mails were disclosed in December by Paul Cheesbrough, News International’s chief information officer since 2010, victims’ lawyer Jeremy Reed said in court yesterday. The names of the people who sent and received the messages are secret because of the ongoing police probe.

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