It is half time at the long-running trial of former Murdoch executives Rebekah Brooks (pictured) and Andy Coulson, and five others, on charges of phone hacking, bribery and destroying evidence. The long-anticipated trial finally began on October 28 last year, and the prosecution has now finished its case, with the defence to begin its on February 17. The judge has told the jury that they will be retiring to decide their verdict not later than May 11.
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 30 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 pounds from Rupert 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.
“… Blunkett and his staff were surprised by the editor’s complete certainty about the relationship.”
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 then-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.