If Rupert Murdoch was hoping for a quick end to the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, he won’t be pleased by yesterday’s decision not to put Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson on trial until September 9 next year.
Worse still, if his two former editors go into the dock at London’s Old Bailey with convicted hacker Glenn Mulcaire and five other ex-NotW journalists — charged with conspiracy to unlawfully intercept communications — the case could easily throw up damaging headlines for weeks and months after that.
By Christmas 2013, perhaps, the eight accused will finally know their fate, and be contemplating it from prison, or celebrating their escape with family and friends. But others will then follow.
First cab off the rank is likely to be a separate trial for Brooks and her husband, Charlie, plus her PA, chauffeur, security guard and the former head of security at News International, on charges of conspiring to pervert the course of justice. But that won’t be the last either.
The Metropolitan Police have now arrested 79 people in three linked investigations — operations Weeting, Elveden and Tuleta — into phone hacking (at the NotW), corrupt payments to police by journalists (at The Sun and the NotW), and computer hacking by private eyes (working mainly for The Sun). But so far only 13 of these people have been charged. Several more cases are currently being looked at by the Crown Prosecution Service which, according to the Met’s Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers, is “making decisions all the time”. Many of these are likely to be current or former reporters on Murdoch’s favourite tabloid The Sun, since they make up about half the 46 journalists arrested by police since mid-2011.
That will put yet more pressure on Rupert and his son, James, who was CEO of the British newspapers (including The Sun and NotW) from December 2007 until September 2009, and executive chairman for more than two years after that.
Meanwhile, the Met will pull out all the stops to get Brooks and Coulson behind bars, so they can justify the huge amount of effort and money spent on getting them to court. So far, the total cost of running Weeting, Elveden and Tuleta is £9 million, but it is forecast to top £40 million by the time the investigations are wound up in 2015. Akers told the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee three weeks ago that there are now 185 police officers and civilians working on the job and the priority is to get cases into court and get a result.
It will be no comfort to Rebekah Brooks and her ex-boss that Akers provided the inspiration for Helen Mirren’s steely DCI Jane Tennison in the famous Granada TV series Prime Suspect. Unmarried at 55, and famous for chasing corruption in the police force, Akers shocked the Leveson inquiry by claiming there was “a culture at The Sun of illegal payments” and that “systems” had been created at the newspaper “to facilitate such payments whilst hiding the identity of the officials receiving the money”.
Talk of “systems” doesn’t quite fit in with the trusty Murdoch defence of “one rogue reporter” that was relied on for so long in the phone-hacking scandal.
Akers told Leveson that one Sun journalist drew more than £150,000 from the paper over the years to pay his sources — hardly an amount one could hide. She also claimed The Sun had also established “a network of corrupt officials”, keeping some of them on a regular retainer.
“The cases we are investigating are not ones involving the odd drink, or meal, to police officers or other public officials,” Akers told Leveson. “These are cases … involving the delivery of regular, frequent and sometimes significant sums of money to small numbers of public officials by journalists.”
If any of these corruption cases comes to court, it will be fascinating to hear about those payment “systems” and about who at News International knew, or should have known, what was happening.
In similar vein, next September’s phone-hacking trial may throw some light on the chain of command and subsequent cover up at the News of the World. One of the journalists facing trial with Brooks and Coulson, former chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck, has long made it clear that he is unlikely to go quietly. He turned down an offer of immunity from the police last year, claiming that investigations would clear him, but he may be tempted to rethink his decision as the trial draws near.