When Justice John Saunders opened what has been called the “trial of the century” he told the jury: “In a way, not only are the defendants on trial, but British justice is on trial.”
To say the defendants in the case are prominent in the world of journalism would be an understatement of gigantic proportions. Charged with conspiring with others at The Sun, where she was editor, to intercept communications by listening to mobile phone messages, plus two further counts of allegedly making corrupt payments to public officials and two final accusations that she allegedly conspired to pervert the course of justice by removing and concealing evidence is Rebekah Brooks, former chief executive of News International, former editor of the News of the World and The Sun and, famously, a close friend of David Cameron.
Beside her in the dock is Andy Coulson, who is facing the same alleged phone hacking charge as Ms Brooks. He and Clive Goodman, the newspaper’s former royal editor, face two counts of conspiring to make corrupt payments to public officials. Coulson was the Prime Minister’s former communications chief and, before that, the editor of the News of the World.
Brooks’ husband, horse trainer and socialite Charlie Brooks faces charges of conspiring to pervert the course of justice and an array of former senior editorial executives, such as Sun managing editor Stuart Kuttner and Sun head of news Ian Edmondson also face charges relating to phone hacking.
Outlining the case against Brooks and Coulson, crown prosecutor Andrew Edis QC stated that two of the accused, Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, had been convicted in 2006 of phone hacking. He then revealed that Mulcaire had pleaded guilty in 2013 to three further charges of conspiracy to hack phones, and that Greg Miskiw, Neville Thurlbeck and James Weatherall, all former news editors at the News of the World, had also pleaded guilty to the same charge.
Edis suggested “corporate involvement” given the number of people from the same organisation who had admitted their guilt of the offence. The fact that three news editors of the News of the World had pleaded guilty, Edis claimed, meant that it was impossible to believe News International’s long and oft-stated contention that hacking had been the responsibility of a single “rogue reporter”.
He also laid down a marker when it came to public interest: “There is no justification of any kind for journalists for getting involved in phone hacking. That is an intrusion into people’s privacy which is against the law,” Edis said. “The prosecution says that journalists are no more entitled to break the law than anyone else.”
Orgy of schadenfreude
But it wasn’t necessarily journalism that dominated the first week, but the private life of Brooks and Coulson after the jury was told of a six-year love affair between the pair which allegedly ran from 1998 to 2004.
Part of what appears to have been a love letter written to Coulson by Brooks was read out in court: “The fact is you are my very best friend. I tell you everything. I confide in you, I seek your advice, I love you, care about you, worry about you. We laugh and cry together.”
This, said the prosecutor, was proof of a “deeply trusting” relationship. Edis told the jury:
What Mr Coulson knew, Mrs Brooks knew too and what Mrs Brooks knew, Mr Coulson knew too, that is the point. Because it’s clear from that letter as at February 2004 they had been having an affair which had lasted at least six years. So that takes us right back to 1998 which is the whole conspiracy period.
Whatever point Edis might have intended the jury to take from this, News International’s rival papers (and the Twittersphere) enjoyed the hell out of the moment - erupting in an orgy of schadenfreude that two tabloid editors had seemingly been hoisted so high on their own petard.
Private lives, c'mon baby leave me out
That bedroom antics are very much grist to the tabloid mill is axiomatic so you would expect there to be some racy moments - and these were largely provided courtesy of Calum Best – whose dad, George was no slouch when it came to horizontal jogging. Best jnr became famous for emulating his father’s off-field exploits around the nightclubs – and the often symbiotic relationship between celebrities and tabloid newspapers was teased out when he took the stand to give evidence about allegations his phone had been hacked.
The jury had already heard from Edis how, when Coulson wanted to verify a tip-off about Best he instructed Edmondson in a three-word email to “do his phone”. But under cross-examinition, Best also admitted to having taken the tabloid shilling, telling the court that he had been paid £2,000 by the News of the World in February 2005 for a story titled “Calum confesses” about an alcohol-fuelled sexual liaison with Elizabeth Jagger.
Meanwhile glamour model Lorna Hogan told the court she had an “arrangement” with the News of the World to meet celebrities in nightclubs and pass on gossip to the newspaper, a practise that had led to her becoming pregnant with Best jnr’s child.
Broadsword calling Danny Boy
The second week of the trial began with Edis describing the “panic-stricken” days around the decision to close of the News of the World in July 2011. As the Guardian reported, Brooks and her personal assistant Cheryl Carter are accused of trying to conceal seven boxes of her notebooks the day after the announcement that the paper was to close down. Edis also alleged that Brooks’ husband, Charlie, and News International’s head of security, Mark Hanna, had conspired to conceal evidence from police.
The jury was told how computers and other material had been removed from the Brooks’ home and hidden and that News International security guards who handled the computers and documents communicated via text in the language of the Hollywood film, Where Eagles Dare. After the drop off the jury heard that the message was sent: “Broadsword to Danny Boy. Pizza delivered and the chicken is in the pot.”
Edis said the Crown’s case was not that the computers contained “devastating evidence of phone hacking” but that “the only rational explanation for it [the alleged stowing of the material] was that it was designed to hide material so the police didn’t get it.”
It was the death of schoolgirl Milly Dowler and allegations that her phone had been hacked which led to the closure of the News of the World and, arguably, to this trial.
The jury heard that Stuart Kuttner had informed police that the paper had accessed the girl’s voicemail messages and were shown an email which appeared to support this allegation. They also heard that chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck had contacted Operation Ruby, the Surrey Police investigation into Dowler’s disappearance, and confirmed the paper had “access” to the girl’s voicemail and that a story would appear the following day. Thurlbeck has already pleaded guilty to phone hacking.
The court also heard that, while all this was going on, Brooks – who was editor of the News of the World at the time – was in Dubai and Coulson as her deputy was editing the paper. The jury was told of regular contact between the two and that a story had been changed between the paper’s first and second editions to remove a transcript of a message left on the schoolgirl’s phone.
Jonathan Laidlaw QC, for Brooks, made the point that contact between the editor and deputy editor of a newspaper were commonplace.
As, in Central Criminal Court 12 at least, was talk of phone hacking. Day after day the jury heard allegations of the phone hacking of politicians (David Blunkett), pop stars (Paul McCartney) and actors (Jude Law).
Blunkett’s special advisor, Huw Evans, told of a meeting with Coulson at which the then editor of the NoTW had informed him they were going to run with a story about the former home secretary’s affair with former Spectator publisher Kimberly Quinn. Evans said he believed that all the paper had was a picture of the pair together and that this could not constitute proof.
I told him that the photograph in itself proved nothing. I remember the tone of his voice… it was flat, unequivocal, that he was absolutely certain that the story was true and he was going to run it. I remember at that time remaining puzzled as to why he could be so certain.
At issue, as in so many court cases, is who said what to whom - and the hacking trial is no different. The jury has heard evidence from a series of dinner parties, lunches and receptions, including from the ex-wife of golfer Colin Montgomerie, Eimear Cook, whose mobile number and PIN had allegedly been found among Mulcaire’s papers and who told of a lunch with Brooks at which she alleged Brooks told her “how easy it is to listen to people’s voicemails if they have not changed their factory PIN numbers.”
The court heard of another meal, this one a dinner at Number 10, where - as Dom Loehniss, a former journalist and a pal of the prime minister David Cameron, told the court Brooks had “discussed the techniques by which messages could be intercepted”. Laidlaw in Brooks’ defence, claimed the exchange was not admission of guilt but rather “a discussion of a topical subject”.
The case continues…