Guy Rundle headed along to week 25 of the News phone-hacking trial in London, and found everyone’s getting tired. Have Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson suffered enough already?
“M’lord, I am rising to point out that the basis for the admission of the hearsay statement ‘the chicken is in the pot’ has changed …”
The florid, Rumpolish barrister looked pleased with himself. The judge looked a little weary.
“Mmmmmmm, could we not apply a little common sense to the legal question here, and say that the jury can decide whether this was a serious communication, or whether the people involved were pretending to be in a spy novel …”
Week 25 of the Hackgate trial, five minutes before adjourning for the week, and everyone was getting a little tired …
Sadly, the trial of the century isn’t in one of those Old Bailey classics — gloomy, stern affairs, with an abject dock, a towering bench with a Gerald Scarfesque judge behind, a distant bank of disapproving jurors, and the black cap for the death penalty nestled beside the gavel. Court 12 is one of the newer courts in the modern annex. It’s all blondish wood and white walls, like a Danish schoolroom, with the judge only slightly raised, his eyes perpetually downcast on a screen, as document after document wheels through. Before him are lawyers.
Lawyers and lawyers. Wig upon wig — there’s enough horsehair here to reassemble Shergar. Four rows deep, with solicitors and pile upon pile of paper, towers of folders, post-it-ed printouts miles high, fat document wallets on the floor, nowhere to move. The case is into its seventh month, and it looks like it’s been so 24/7.
There’s a sleep-deprived quality, 40 people studying for the ultimate exam. All that disrupts the vision is the jury in one corner, 11 good men and true — dressed as if for a car boot sale on a wet Saturday afternoon for the most part — and at the back, encased in bulletproof glass, the defendants, Andy Coulson, Rebekah Brooks nee Wade, Charlie Brooks (her husband), and Mark Hanna, former News Int head of security.
These people, and the other five accused, have been turning up to hear a slow and exhaustive disinterring of their alleged actions over a couple of days, a couple of years ago, when, the prosecution claim, the Brookses and their staff, both inside News and without, hid documents and disposed of electronic devices that would have allowed access to emails and texts, establishing a clear chain of authority in the mass phone hacking of celebs, royals, MPs and crime victims, including murdered teenagers and survivors of the 7/7 bombings.
Over the months the court has heard allegations and evidence that this group/gang perpetrated a fairly ham-fisted attempt to shift documents out of offices ahead of a police search — including putting them behind bins in the News Ltd carpark, where they were found by a cleaner — and then claiming, inter alia, that this was due to Brooks maritus, and his fear that his taste for magazine porn and his half-finished novel would be discovered.
There was more, much more — such as Rebekah Brooks’ PA apparently giving false evidence as to her whereabouts on the crucial days in July 2011, and a full exploration of the affair between Rebekah and her underling Andy Coulson, which ran for six years until 2009, when Coulson left News to take up a position as David Cameron’s spin doctor, charged with minimising damage from any dumb decisions he might make, such as … heh. Rebekah married Charlie Brooks later that year. She had previously been married to Ross Kemp, a slightly dopey actor famous for playing “hard men” in various soaps and cop shows. The marriage broke up due to domestic violence — she allegedly hit him, several times apparently.
Whatever the Brooks-Brooks-Coulson overlap, they’ve had plenty of time to think about it — the three of them cooped up in the same glass case for months on end. Time has made them look weird and strange. Yesterday, Brooks, R. was wearing that white shirt collar and dark blue V-neck ensemble she’s favoured since the start, which makes her look like a) a Salem witch, b) a St Trinian’s prefect, and c) Madame Mao during the Gang of Four trial, so great choice really.
“Why did she make no inquiries? Not because she is an idiot, but because she knew all along!”
Brooks, C. sits at a laptop typing incessantly as the case proceeds (case notes? Or more fiction? Those Cotswolds bodice-ripper Aga sagas don’t write themselves, I guess). He’s in white shirt — tieless, he means business — with a haircut more likely to be favoured by a Gerry and the Pacemakers tribute band playing the Slough Steakhouse on a Wednesday night. Coulson, seated as far from the woman he bumped uglies with for six years as can be — i.e. a sort of post-Einsteinian distance longer than the area that contains them — chews on a pencil, cultivates the speccy Boy Detective look, and gazes at the public gallery (we had a bit of a stare-off. I won, but to be fair, he was looking up).
Meanwhile, the chief prosecutor Anthony Edis is slowly taking them on a voyage down a meandering river of shit. Crucial to summing up the case has been to show that any notion that knowledge of systemic phone-hacking at the News Int titles — and the wholesale paying of police and military as part of that — could not possibly have been sealed off from Coulson and Brooks, R. and that there is no scenario suggesting it that could be construed as reasonable.
That involves a lot of backhanded complimenting, kinda. The meat of yesterday afternoon’s session was establishing that Brooks, R. knew that a whole series of military scoops were coming from someone who was illegally selling inside info on casualties, UK base scandals and the like.
Ms Brooks was a talented editrix, Edis implied, Brooks, R. sitting up a little at this. Then he let go:
“… and what sort of idiot would you have to be to not know that the source of this information, this person, was not a public official of some kind?
“Why did she make no inquiries? Not because she is an idiot, but because she knew all along!”
Ms Brooks sat back a little at this.
Edis then went through a series of emails from John Kay, The Sun’s chief reporter, all saying pretty much the same thing:
“Morning, boss, can you authorise Thomas Cook payments for my ace military contact?” “Boss, I know times are tough, but these stories are exclusives. Can you authorise …” “Boss, need a payment for my ace military contact …” and so on. The contact in question was a reasonably senior army admin officer, Bettina Jordan-Barber, who scored nearly 90,000 quid from leaking stories about Afghanistan incidents, UK base crimes, and Prince William movements.
The repetition of the emails — a dozen ways of saying the same thing — had a mildly avant-garde effect, a sort of concrete poetry moment. Edis wrapped it up with a turnabout: “The one thing you won’t find in this huge file is the phrase ‘public interest’, because there was no discussion of it. It simply did not occur, even though Ms Brooks had earlier said that she would ‘only ever do something if it is in the public interest’.
“Indeed,” he said, hunkering down, “she has come here with a most extraordinary defence, for she has already admitted to having a knife taken onto a plane [for an airport security story], and claimed a defence of public interest. However, once a prosecution on such matters has begun, there is no defence of public interest — that only comes into consideration in a consideration of whether or not to prosecute.”
Meaning, a) Ms Brooks is smart enough to know that the “ace military contact” was selling information illegally, but b) really quite dumb. Brooks proved that years ago, when she told a parliamentary sub-committee that News Int had paid police officers for information (a crime, under all circumstances). Brooks looked beaky throughout all this discussion, frowny and shaking her head, where she is otherwise for the most part impassive throughout. One would have to assume that she has dranketh of the Murdoch Kool-Aid — Rupe’s bullshit pseudo-libertarianism that everything a paper can scarf up with money is of public interest, and that no sanction would attach for doing so.
Seven months of this so far. Days, perhaps weeks more to go. And, after numerous summings-up, Clive Goodman, News’ royal correspondent who was pinged for all this years ago, will have to give out-of-sequence evidence (he was having heart disease treatment during the trial), and then selective re-summing will have to be done. And then, if conviction, appeal. The possibility of further charges. And for Coulson, an entirely new trial, in Scotland, for perjury (in a perjury case! Of Tommy Sheridan, who sued the News of the World for libel).
I looked at the jury. Eight women, three men. Eight white, three black. Of the women, four youngish, professional, serious glasses, taking serious notes. One bloke with ginger hipster sideburns, in a mustard T-shirt with space invaders in the shape of a skull. Can you wear absolutely anything to jury? Apparently so. Not a tie or a jacket, a smart dress suit among them. But a seemingly intelligent crew, taking a lot of notes. Hmmmmmmmmm.
“Would that not be a sufficient basis to admit the statement? That it was something from a spy novel?”
“Will your lordship advise of us his direction on this?”
The judge rose. We all rose. Departing he looks, of course, like Santa. Charlie Brooks was reattaching his cufflinks. There was a shade of afterglow. Arguably, even if found guilty on all counts, Rebekah Brooks having spent seven months in a glass box with her ex-lover and a possibly bedwarmer husband could be justifiably sentenced to time served, and justice would be done.