Over the past eight months, two of the most powerful and now most reviled people in the British press faced a jury of their peers. These citizens navigated 42,000 pages of Crown evidence, seven months of hearings, and days of cross-examination of the main players to find one former editor of News of the World guilty of conspiring to hack phones, while letting his more powerful predecessor walk free.
Facing charges in what’s been dubbed the “trial of the century” were Rebekah Brooks, a former editor of The Sun and News of the World, and most recently chief executive of News International, and Andy Coulson, Brooks’ deputy when she was editor who replaced her when she left to The Sun. Coulson resigned when two of his journalists were found guilty of phone hacking, but landed in British Prime Minister David Cameron’s office, implicating his government in the scandal. Ten other defendants also faced charges, including Brooks’ husband and personal assistant, along with several other reporters and editors at the News of the World.
What happened before the trial?
Brooks’ defence argued she couldn’t face a jury trial, as she was so hated and tainted with negative press coverage that no jury could judge her fairly. Indeed, there would be few British citizens without an opinion of phone hacking by the time the case went to court. Several of the journalists who worked for Brooks and Coulson had already been found guilty of phone-hacking offenses before this week’s verdict.
In 2007, News of the World royal editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire were sentenced to four and six months in prison respectively on phone-hacking charges. Andy Coulson resigned as editor of the newspaper at the time, but said was the hacking is the work of rogue reporters.
In January 2011, police opened a phone-hacking investigation. Six months later, The Guardian published its story claiming that News of the World journalists hacked into voicemails left for murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler — the public outcry led Rupert Murdoch to swiftly announce the closure of News of the World.
Parliamentary hearings and an inquiry into press regulation came and went. The police investigation continued. Brooks and Coulson are arrested in 2012 — their trial started in October 2013.
How involved was Rupert Murdoch?
Rupert Murdoch, the mogul behind News International, was not part of the case, at least formally. But according to Guardian journalist Nick Davies, Murdoch’s money “flowed through the courtroom”, to the defence of both Brooks and Coulson (although Coulson had to sue Murdoch to get him to pay). Davies writes:
“Lawyers and court reporters who spend their working lives at the Old Bailey agreed they had never seen anything like it, this multimillion-pound Rolls-Royce engine purring through the proceedings. Soon we found ourselves watching the power of the private purse knocking six bells out of the underfunded public sector. In the background, for sure, there was a huge publicly funded police inquiry, forced by the stench of past failure to investigate thoroughly the crime which had been ignored and concealed for so long. But when it came to handling the police evidence in court, Brooks and Coulson had squads of senior partners, junior solicitors and paralegals, as well as a highly efficient team monitoring all news and social media. The cost to Murdoch ran into millions. Against that, the Crown Prosecution Service had only one full-time solicitor attached to the trial and one admin assistant. They worked assiduously. One prosecution source said it was surprising they had not simply collapsed under the strain.”
What were Brooks and Coulson charged with?
Brooks faced four charges: conspiracy to hack phones when she was at News of the World, making corrupt payments to public officials while she was editor of The Sun, and two further charges relating to concealing evidence from police investigating phone hacking in 2011.
Coulson faced three charges: conspiracy to hack phones while he was editor of News of the World, and another two charges relating to paying public officials for the acquisition of royal phone books.
The fact that phone-hacking occurred at News of the World over several years while both Brooks and Coulson edited the paper was never in doubt throughout the trial. But the two defendants were not being charged with phone-hacking — rather, with allegedly knowing about it and doing nothing, or trying to cover it up.
Three types of evidence helped land Coulson with a guilty verdict.
The case against Coulson
The first was a tape of a conversation recorded by former British home secretary David Blunkett, in which Coulson confronted him with knowledge of an affair. “I am certainly very confident of the information… It is based on an extremely reliable source”. Coulson, on the stand, admitted this revealed he knew of one instance of phone hacking, but argued he wasn’t part of the conspiracy to make it happen and cover it up.
An email also helped bring Coulson undone. Fearing a journalist was leaking information about an investigation to its target, Coulson sent an email to other NOTW executives, telling them to “do his phone”.
And two witnesses claimed Coulson knew about phone hacking. Showbusiness writer Dan Evans told the jury he’d been hired by Coulson from the Sunday Mirror because of his hacking skills. He also claimed to have played Coulson a tape hacked from the phone of actor Daniel Craig.
Another witness, former NOTW royal editor Clive Goodman (who’d already been found guilty of phone hacking) told the jury Coulson had personally approved his hacking of the phones of the royal family. He added that hacking was going on an “industrial scale” at the paper, and was openly discussed in meetings with Coulson.
The case against Brooks, and why it fell apart
There was no such damning evidence against Brooks. Three witnesses recalled social occasions where Brooks had discussed hacking with apparent ease, but the defence was able to poke significant holes in their testimony. And much of the prosecution’s case rested on 11,000 pages of barely legible notes written by convicted hacker Mulcaire. His notes were loose with dates and particulars, and so the defence was able to argue there were only 12 occasions where there was 100% certainty Muclaire had hacked a phone while Brooks was editor.
The phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler was hacked while Brooks was editor. But she was on holiday in Dubai during the episode, and said she didn’t read the stories her paper were writing on the topic. When she returned, she said she remained oblivious to the saga. Part of the problem for the prosecution’s case was the fact that given Brooks editorship was so long ago, only a handful of emails from her time in office remained. She’d stepped down as editor in 2003, so much of the documentation had been lost. Davies writes:
“Over the years, News International had deleted some 300m emails from their systems, only 90m of which were retrieved, including only a handful from Brooks’ editorship. The hard drive had been removed from her computer for safe keeping then lost.”
Given this, there was “no direct evidence to implicate her in phone hacking”, and she was cleared of all charges.
The phone-hacking investigation is not over. Scotland Yard still investigating charges against numerous journalists. And the verdict against Coulson also opens up his employer, News International, to further charges. As The Guardian notes:
“The verdict on Coulson also means that Murdoch’s UK company is now threatened with a possible corporate charge, while the media owner also faces the prospect of a dozen more criminal trials involving his journalists as well as hundreds more legal actions in the high court from the alleged victims of phone hacking by the News of the World.”
It’s also been revealed that police have asked to interview Murdoch as a suspect in further hacking investigations.
For Brooks, it isn’t complete vindication. The trial revealed she didn’t know what her journalists were doing, nor how they were getting their information for the stories splashed on the front page of her paper. It’s a damaging admission to live with, and follows years where Brooks has been vilified and disgraced in the British press, and stripped of much of the influence she’d garnered over her meteoric rise to the top of British public life. As even The Times, owned by News, admitted in a feature by Fiona Hamilton: “While Coulson’s disgrace is now legally sealed, Brooks is unlikely to easily shed her image as the face of the hacking scandal.”