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On trial for hacking: the story so far

13 February 2014

It’s now the defence’s turn to put its case in the News International phone-hacking trial in London. Rodney Tiffen untangles the testimony to date


Former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks and husband Charlie Brooks arrive at the Old Bailey as the phone-hacking trial continued last week. Sean Dempsey/PA Wire

Former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks and husband Charlie Brooks arrive at the Old Bailey as the phone-hacking trial continued last week. Sean Dempsey/PA Wire

IT IS half time at the long-running trial of former Murdoch executives Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, and five others, on charges of phone hacking, bribery and destroying evidence. The long-anticipated trial finally began on 28 October last year, and the prosecution has now finished its case, with the defence to begin theirs on 17 February. The judge has told the jury that they will be retiring to decide their verdict not later than 11 May.

Further trials will follow, each of them likely to involve several defendants, some of whom will face multiple charges. It is not yet clear how many there will be, but around thirty others have been charged. It’s possible that the verdicts in the current trial could expedite future proceedings; if these seven defendants are all found guilty, for example, some others may change their pleas to guilty.

It is difficult for all but the most determined observers to keep track of a long-running court case like this one. The day’s stories flow in different directions depending on which witnesses are testifying, and who is questioning them. British journalists have written detailed accounts of the trial’s progress, but they are severely constrained by contempt of court rules. They are allowed to give a fair and accurate report of each day’s proceedings, but they aren’t allowed to comment, to weigh witnesses’ credibility, or even to join the dots between what different witnesses are saying. Some people still facing charges cannot be named in British news reports.

Three of the accused are on trial for phone hacking – Brooks (former editor of the News of the World and the Sun, then chief executive of News International, who resigned in July 2011 with a payout of £10.8 million from Murdoch), Coulson (deputy to Brooks at News of the World, and then editor, who resigned in early 2007 and formally accepted responsibility for the phone hacking of the royal princes while denying all knowledge of it, and who then became communications director for British PM David Cameron, resigning from that post in January 2011) and Stuart Kuttner (managing editor of the News of the World). Ian Edmondson (news editor of News of the World) was also charged but his case was set aside in December because of ill health; he will be tried by a different jury at a later date.

Brooks and Coulson also face bribery charges. Although the prosecutor argued that Brooks and Coulson had conspired to pay money to corrupt public officials for over a decade, only a small number of instances are being pursued. Brooks is charged with authorising payments to a senior official from the Ministry of Defence (who has pleaded guilty to receiving the bribes) and to a member of the defence forces and his wife. Coulson, together with former News of the World royal editor Clive Goodman, is charged with bribing unidentified palace police officers in order to obtain royal telephone directories. Goodman has already spent time in jail for hacking royal phones, and the charge is that obtaining these directories illegally was a step in facilitating that activity.

Finally, Brooks, her husband Charlie, her personal assistant and a senior security officer at News International are charged with perverting the course of justice by destroying evidence.

The trial began dramatically, when the prosecutor revealed that four others had pleaded guilty to phone-hacking charges – three senior editorial executives at Murdoch’s News of the World, Neville Thurlbeck, Greg Miskiw and James Weatherup, plus the paper’s specialist hacker, Glenn Mulcaire.

Puzzlingly, these four were not called by the prosecution as witnesses, even though each was in a position to testify directly on the phone-hacking charges with which their superiors have been charged. I thought perhaps this was for legal reasons, but during the prosecution case, another journalist who had pleaded guilty, Dan Evans, appeared. He testified how pleased Coulson had been when he told him he had hacked actor Sienna Miller’s phone and had discovered a message in which she said she loved James Bond star Daniel Craig.

Although the prosecution argues (and the defence teams agree) that the phone hacking victims numbered in the hundreds, only a few were called – including Jude Law and Sienna Miller. Even then, the prosecution’s evidence didn’t always proceed smoothly. Coulson’s lawyer was able to point out that Coulson was in New York when Evans claims to have told him of the phone tap, although an embarrassed Evans said this was merely a confusion of dates. Law was visibly shocked when a defence barrister gave him the name of a close family member whom it was claimed had been paid bribes by the paper to give confidential information.

Earlier the prosecution had canvassed several other cases, including the one whose revelation had ignited the scandal in July 2011, that of murder victim Milly Dowler. Because of a message mistakenly left by an employment agency, the paper became convinced that Milly was still alive. It tried to convince police to follow this line of investigation, only for it to prove fruitless.

In addition, several Labour MPs and ministers had their phones hacked. In 2004 home secretary David Blunkett was struggling to save his relationship with the woman he loved, Spectator publisher Kimberly Quinn, a married woman. But he did not suspect that his every message was being monitored by the News of the World. Police found 330 of those voicemail messages in the safe of the company lawyer, Tom Crone. The paper also wrongly suspected that Blunkett was having an affair with another woman, and she and her partner, ex-boyfriend, parents and other family members all became targets.

When Coulson confronted Blunkett with the accusation of his affair with Quinn, Blunkett and his staff were surprised by the editor’s complete certainty about the relationship. Blunkett, who was not married, pleaded his right to privacy. But Coulson replied that as home secretary, he could not use his right to privacy to “bat back that you have had an affair with a married woman.” Coulson offered not to name the woman in the News of the World; the Sun named her the following week.

THE core of the prosecution case has been carried less by personal testimony, and more by physical evidence from emails, phone transcripts, tapes and money transfers. From Mulcaire’s records, for example, the jury was told that in a single month, April 2006, four royal aides had been hacked a total of 296 times, or nearly ten royal hacks a day. Other tapes and transcripts relating to Prince William and Kate Middleton, English football manager Sven-Göran Eriksson and many others were also revealed.

Some of the internal emails are explosive: Goodman wrote to Coulson, in relation to a royal phone directory, that “it is a very risky document for him to nick… It’s one of our normal cash contribution only players.” On 1 July 2005 he wrote to the managing editor about the need to pay two uniformed sources in cash, and “we – them, you, me, the editor – would all end up in jail if anyone traced their payments.”

In another email, Coulson directed a journalist to “do his phone” when trying to do a story about Calum Best, son of the star footballer George Best. The jury heard from Lorna Hogan, who worked for an agency called Supermodels, which targeted celebrities in night clubs in order to get stories. She had a regular relationship with the News of the World, and for some stories received secret cash payments of up to £10,000. She had an affair with Calum Best, which resulted in two stories (“Lust Like Dad” and “I’m Having Calum Best’s Baby”). The paper also published a scanned picture of her unborn child.

A period of tension occurred in late 2006 when Goodman and Mulcaire were on trial for hacking into the phones of Princes William and Harry and their entourages. Goodman emailed Coulson that Mulcaire was being very difficult, and “you’ve got to worry” whether Mulcaire and his lawyers are “keeping schtumm.” Goodman also helpfully recorded a conversation in which Coulson said “my absolute intention is to be able to say at the end of this that you know we are going to continue to employ you.” Once Goodman was imprisoned, the company fired him. In a 2007 letter appealing his dismissal, which became public in 2011, Goodman says he was promised continuing employment if he did not implicate the company in his mitigation plea.

These chains of evidence have been compiled into a long list of facts agreed by both prosecution and defence lawyers, and then given to the jury, who have now accumulated sizeable folders of documents. Essentially it is the plea of the four newspaper editors that although offences occurred, they personally did not participate in them, authorise them or even know about them.

A side show to the principal scandals – although one potentially carrying custodial sentences – involves the destruction of evidence. Charlie Brooks was recorded by CCTV twelve minutes after Rebekah’s arrest in July 2011 disposing of a jiffy bag and laptop computers in the car park of their London flat. Unfortunately for him, a conscientious cleaner thought that someone must have put out such a new and expensive computer by mistake, and took the package to his supervisor.

In that same week, when the News of the World was closed, and days before Brooks was arrested, her personal assistant ordered Brooks’s notebooks covering the period 1995 to 2007 to be recalled from the company archive. According to Brooks’s assistant, this was because the archive was being downsized, but the archive head testified that no such downsizing was taking place. Seven boxes of notebooks were apparently successfully destroyed. A witness testified that the company head of security had dug a hole in his garden and “burnt stuff.”

Brooks had also been centrally involved in the company’s email deletion strategy. With the prospect of civil cases looming as the phone hacking became further exposed, the company decided to “eliminate… emails that could be unhelpful in the context of future litigation.” In 2010, she wanted a clean sweep, deleting all emails prior to that January. This was only partially successful, as some emails survived on a backup server, but millions were successfully deleted. Police also concluded that at least two computers used by Brooks had disappeared, while her hard disc was among those destroyed by the company. As many as ten mobile phones issued to Brooks from the company have also disappeared.

The trial has revealed even more about the extent of the company’s phone hacking than was already on the public record. Four private investigators were previously known to have been contracted to the News of the World. A new one, Andrew Gadd, told the court he was paid more than £200,000 over six years to trace personal and company details.

Mulcaire was the phone hacker in chief. According to the evidence at the trial, Mulcaire was paid perhaps £700,000 by the paper, and for at least some of the period was on a contract of over £100,000 per year. The police have found that the only thing he ever did for the company was phone hacking. In other words, everything he undertook for this very large amount of money was illegal.

Considerable phone hacking was also undertaken from within the company’s Wapping headquarters. One royal aide was targeted over 400 times over a period of several months in 2005–06, and a total of 700 relevant calls were made from the newspaper office.

On the second day of the trial, the prosecution released an email showing that Coulson and Brooks had had a six-year affair from the late 1990s, a period in which both became married to other people. While this affair was going on, the Sun published an attack on trade union leader Andrew Gilchrist, who had led a strike the paper disapproved of, and whose phone they had hacked, as “a lying, cheating, low-life fornicator.” It also often used terms such as “love rat” to describe adulterers caught in its net.

While there is a certain poetic justice, then, in Brooks and Coulson’s affair being revealed, the prosecution’s reason for making it public was to argue that they were so intimate that what one knew during this period, the other also knew.

The extent of the editors’ knowledge and ignorance is the central question to be decided by the jury. Murdoch’s newspapers have the reputation of being stingy employers who count every penny. Yet the payments to the private investigators and for the bribes possibly totalled almost half a million pounds a year. Many sensitive and dangerous stories came from the intercepts, and it would be a brave editor who ran such risks based simply on trust, without wanting to know the basis for them. As the prosecutor told the jury, “You will have to decide whether this could happen without the editor knowing.”

Over the next few months, the defendants will mount their cases, but at the end of the trial that question will still be central. •

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